“Judge me on what I do and I think you will be pleased and proud of me.”
— Baroness Catherine Ashton, 2009
It was December 2009. A look of surprise enveloped her face as she read the text message. Baroness Catherine Ashton had just been unanimously selected by all 27 national leaders as the European Union’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. While the grand appointment not only makes Ashton the highest paid British politician, and the top female earner in the political world, her fame is relatively new, despite being quite active in various government departments.
Born into a coal mining family, Cathy Ashton, as she likes to be known, was the first in many generations to attend a university. The economics graduate from the University of London started off as an administrator in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1980s, and during most of the next decade worked as a freelance policy advisor.
Recognition trickled in when she became a member of the upper house of the English Parliament in 1999 and was conferred the title of Baroness Ashton of Upholland by Tony Blair. By 2001, Ashton was handling education projects for the Department for Education and Skills, and tackling a range of issues connected to children. For these contributions Ashton earned the “Minister of the Year” honor in 2005 by The House Magazine.
But Ashton’s head peeked out from obscurity in 2008, when she was appointed Trade Commissioner. She was lauded for initiating a crucial trade agreement with South Korea and for solving numerous trade disputes with many of the EU’s trading partners, especially China. A promoter of free trade during the recession, Ashton reinforced the EU’s trade relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and has firmly supported trade as a means of improving foreign relations and furthering the development of economies around the world. In 2009, Ashton was also instrumental in ending the long running beef import row, a measure which banned imports of hormone-treated beef from the U.S.
Known for her calm and low-key approach, Ashton scored one of her most significant victories as a champion of the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. Among other things, the Treaty unified the 27 nations of the EU, providing the region with a single voice. And significantly, the Treaty defined and expanded the role of the EU High Representative, answering former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “If I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?”
I think for quite a few people, they would say I am the best for the job and I was chosen because I am,” says a self-assured Ashton.
Yet, despite her successes in trade negotiations and foreign diplomacy, Ashton’s appointment in 2009 for the newly sketched out diplomatic post not only astonished her, but everyone else across the EU. Wryly, she admits to the Financial Times, “I’m not stupid and I do understand that people thought, ‘Hang on a minute, who is she?’” The reason behind her selection for such a weighty position remains under speculation even today. At the time, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the choice between Ashton and Peter Mandelson, who was the previous trade commissioner. The heads of state unanimously voted for Ashton, taking everybody by surprise. David O’Sullivan, the Irish EU director-general for trade described Ashton as an “outstanding trade commissioner,” possessing “many of the political skills needed to make a success of this new job.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the rumble of discontent with Ashton’s appointment began. Some call her inexperienced, while still others criticize her slow response to various crises, such as the Gulf oil spill. One of the biggest accusations leveled at Ashton was her decision to attend the inauguration of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, rather than be present at the meeting of defense ministers and NATO members held in Mallorca in February 2010. The unassuming Ashton herself surmises that perhaps one of her chief drawbacks may have been that she did not sport the image of a high-flying foreign representative.
Still, Ashton continues to maintain a low profile on the job and tackle issues quietly, believing that “a lot can be achieved with quiet diplomacy.” In a speech last year, Ashton resolved, “Over the next few months and years I aim to show I am the best person for this job.” Indeed, the proof may be in the pudding. So far, Cathy Ashton’s demeanor has represented Britain with grace and resolve on the world stage. Then perhaps, not only Britain but the rest of the world will take notice of this particular jewel in the Crown.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2018