French 'sexism' blamed for attacks on Baroness Ashton

EU's first foreign affairs supremo is fighting an 'image war' which critics say she is losing

The EU's new foreign policy chief has come in for a barrage of criticism that is severely undermining her credibility less than three months into her tenure, say Brussels officials.

A public attack on Baroness Ashton of Upholland that first appeared in the French press and was partly fuelled by her decision not to travel to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake has sharpened in recent weeks. Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos is among those believed to have joined the growing ranks of European officials to take aim at the newcomer.

The attacks may help to explain why the Baroness flew to the Balkans yesterday and – with an EU military mission to Haiti is to begin this week – why one of Baroness Ashton's officials said this might be "the right moment" for the Labour peer to visit the stricken Caribbean country. Lady Ashton used a summit of EU leaders on the Greek economic crisis last week to claim back some ground in the battle with her detractors by announcing the military mission. "She will start travelling a lot more now and will cover as much ground as [Javier] Solana did. But she really felt it has been essential for her to learn the ropes in Brussels before heading abroad," her spokesman said.

"She very badly and urgently needs a success story or she will lose this image war," a senior diplomat in Brussels said. "At first people were inclined to be kind and wait for her to come good. But she is keeping them waiting a little too long."

Lady Ashton's appointment to what is arguably the toughest post within the EU last November was greeted with surprise and scepticism owing to her lack of international experience. A non-elected peer in the House of Lords, Lady Ashton succeeded Peter Mandelson as Trade Commissioner but kept a far lower profile than her predecessor.

The initial goodwill towards the 53-year-old appears to be ebbing amid her continuing lack of confidence during foreign policy briefings and ministerial meetings, when she is regularly eclipsed by her more seasoned colleagues. Spain's Mr Moratinos – whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency – has reportedly been venting his frustration during visits to Brussels when he has compared her negatively to Javier Solana, the political veteran who held the post of High Representative for a decade. Senior officials within her team complain that she "sticks to generalities".

Her no-show in Haiti helped to tip what was just a mild undercurrent of consternation into a torrent of hostility. Her argument that "disaster tourism" would detract from vital humanitarian efforts was left looking silly when another senior EU official, Development Commissioner Karel De Gucht, was dispatched to the scene of the disaster. French newspapers seized on her absence, with the left-leaning daily Libération expressing outrage that Lady Ashton had returned to Britain to visit her husband and children on the same day that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Port-au-Prince. "It smacks of amateurism, even incompetence," the paper wrote. France's Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche deplored the "current void" left by Ashton. "The world does not wait for us," he told French reporters. She also left herself open to further attacks over her decision to forgo an international aid conference for Haiti in Canada, leaving the media-savvy French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to grab the limelight.

But supporters said criticism of what may have been an error of judgement is now degenerating into a personal character assassination. "The French seem to have it in for her. It is open to question how much of this is about her being British and a woman. And they have a huge guilt complex over Haiti anyway, which they might channelling through her. But it is becoming excessive," said one senior diplomat, referring to a recent French article that alleged that Lady Ashton "switches off her phone after 8pm" and makes off to London every weekend to visit her husband and school-going child, instead of travelling the globe.

Ashton's aides say she is still relatively sanguine, but has been angered over what she perceives as "latent sexism" from some of her European peers. "She's a very easy target right now, and everyone is making the most of it," added the diplomat. "It's been compounded by the fact that she has not equipped herself with a strong team. No one in her cabinet seems to be advising her properly. They should have foreseen that this would happen."

The post of EU High Representative was beefed up under the Lisbon Treaty, making Ashton single-handedly responsible for foreign policy and putting her in charge of the creation of a mammoth new EU diplomatic service, the External Action Service. This will fuse thousands of staff now scattered throughout the European Commission and the European Council and dozens of embassies, but it is not likely to be in place until the end of the year. "Until then, she is like a minister without a ministry," the official said. "So what do people expect from her? It's the worst job in Europe."

Low-key Council: Europe's figureheads

*Under the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December, the European Union acquired its first ever permanent president and a Special Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security policy.

The idea was to give the EU a more recognisable public profile.

However, a political compromise between the most powerful member states saw both jobs go to low-key personalities rather than a figure who could in David Miliband's words "stop traffic".

The former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy became the European Council's first president and Catherine Ashton, formerly the European trade commissioner, emerged with the foreign affairs job. She must now run a new European foreign office or diplomatic corps.

Although her new job comes under the auspices of the EU's law-making Council, Baroness Ashton confusingly remains a member of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. This has generated much debate over how her job will work in practice.

Other commissioners also have roles in external relations including the Czech appointee who is in charge of enlargement and the so-called "neighbourhood" policy or links with the EU's eastern neighbours.