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New EU Foreign-Policy Chief Faces Tough Questions On Suitability


Catherine Ashton answered questions at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

Catherine Ashton answered questions at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

(RFE/RL) -- The European Union's new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, today faced a barrage of questions from members of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

The questions ranged across EU relations with Russia and with the bloc's eastern neighbors, including Ukraine, to the issue of her qualifications and suitability for the job.

The informal meeting between Ashton and parliament members is the first since her controversial appointment last month.

Although not part of formal confirmation hearings, which take place in January, today's session enabled the parliament to gain first impressions of the British Labour Party peer, whose appointment has been criticized on a number of grounds.

One of the first questions dealt with her past, namely her involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1980s.

The CND, one of Europe's biggest mass movements, regularly held massive demonstrations against NATO's nuclear capacity, and Ashton served as its treasurer at a time when it received clandestine financial support from the Soviet Union.

Ashton in reply denied ever taking money knowingly from a communist country or organization. But she said that much of CND's revenue came from buckets filed with money that were passed around at demonstrations, and there was no tracing the origin of that money.

She also defended herself from accusations that she did not have the weight of experience to do the job of EU foreign-policy chief. She said she has no doubts at all about her own abilities.

"I bring to this role 28 years of experience in negotiation, building consensus, and in advocacy," Ashton said. "And I hope that the experience, particularly in the last year, will be recognized by this house as relevant and pertinent for the role that is to come."

Eastern Partnerships

Ashton was asked how she views the EU's relationship with Russia, and also whether she intends to keep up pressure for human rights observance with foreign governments.

"We are going to have to work closely with them [the Russians]. We did talk of course about energy issues with them and we'll have to continue that dialogue," Ashton said.

"But I do think on human rights, the rule of law, all of these issues, we must continue to talk with Russia."

Asked about Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, she said that "much remains to be done" to advance stable democracy there.

Another questioner asked her what efforts she will make in the run-up the EU-Ukraine summit, to warn Russia not to interfere in the coming Ukrainian presidential election.

She did not address that question directly, only noting there have been direct contacts between Russian and Ukrainian leaders, and that the election itself looked like it would be close, which is healthy for democracy.

She also answered a question on Iran's announcement that it will build 10 uranium-enrichment plants in defiance of a UN order to cease such work.

Ashton said that she regrets Iran's decision and "we need to show unity, which I think is already there with the international community in our views on the latest steps that have been taken by Iran. I do believe in the end we have to try and find a negotiated way through this if we can but we also need to continue the work on thinking about sanctions."

Ashton also described as "essential" the European Union's efforts to develop relations with near neighbors to the east.
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