Baptism of fire for EU's foreign affairs supremo

Ashton fails to dispel doubts about experience during grilling by MEPs

A three-hour hearing yesterday that was Baroness Ashton's first chance to prove she is up to the job of becoming the EU's voice on the world stage ended in disappointment after she turned it into a game of evasion tactics.

Some of her interrogators muttered their disapproval as they drifted out of the confirmation hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels, where MEPs grilled the EU's new "foreign minister" on issues ranging from the Middle East peace process to human rights in Belarus.

"There's certainly no enthusiasm about her though we can probably find a way of working with her," Elmar Brok, a veteran German Christian Democrat and foreign policy expert said afterwards. "She clearly still has a lot of learning to do; there are many gaping holes that will have to be filled very quickly."

Her worst tormentors, mostly British Conservative MEPs, sought to stoke up controversy over her former role as treasurer of the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1980s. "What was then part of a much bigger worldwide movement is no longer relevant now. I am not a member of CND now and have not been a member for over 28 or 29 years," she told Charles Tannock, who had asked whether in her function as "defence supremo" dealing with countries such as Iran, she now repudiated her earlier views.

Lady Ashton's deft display of ducking and diving will do little to calm fears over her inexperience, which have been audible ever since European leaders picked her as their surprise choice as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in November.

The post, created by the Lisbon Treaty, will place Lady Ashton in command of a global diplomatic staff and give her many new instruments and a vast budget to carve out the EU's relationship with Washington, Moscow, Beijing and other world capitals. But instead of setting out her vision for a more muscular European approach to foreign affairs, she gave broad ranging answers, often admitting to her lack of knowledge and pointing out that she was "just five weeks into the job".

Yet it was not all bad. Looking visibly relieved as the hearing ended, Lady Ashton was congratulated by a handful of the MEPs who will vote on the appointments of all new commissioners on 26 January. "She is willing to learn and listen," said Ana Gomes, a Socialist Portuguese MEP. "She has plenty of potential. But of course her first real test will come when she is faced with a crisis."

Yet Lady Ashton will be forced to get up to speed quickly if she is to make herself heard among her European colleagues, including her immediate boss, the EU President Herman van Rompuy, and the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso. The Spanish Foreign Minister, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, has also made a bid for the limelight with an ambitious programme to re-energise the Middle East Peace Process and hold a EU-US summit.

"Foreign policy has become a very crowded field and she has to get to grips with a very messy construction. It's an impossible job for one person. But that's not her fault, it's the fault of those who created this structure," says Mr Brok.

Lady Ashton was the first of the new European Commission appointees to be questioned by MEPs in a 10-day round of hearings. Bulgaria's Rumiana Jeleva, the EU's new Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, who will be questioned today, is among the more controversial newcomers who may struggle to clear allegations relating to her husband's business dealings that have fuelled fears of a possible conflict of interest.