Incoming EU Trade Chief: Meet the "EuroPalin"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/06/2008 02:22:00 PM
Among the four main negotiators for the Doha Round in recent years, the EU's Peter Mandelson had by far the most name recognition prior to assuming his post. America's Susan Schwab, Brazil's Celso Amorim, and India's Kamal Nath did not really match Mandelson in this department. It is then with considerable consternation that the EU powers-that-be have selected a relatively obscure politician to replace Mandelson after he accepted New Labour's gambit to shore up declining support at home. Picture this: a little-known lady is chosen to vie for a very important post at a critical juncture. In America, you have the gaffe-prone "hockey mom" Sarah Palin becoming a candidate for the second highest office in the land as the country is headed for a full-blown recession. Meanwhile, in Europe, Baroness Catherine Ashton is now--you guessed it--the candidate to occupy the second most important EU post as trade commissioner while international trade talks teeter on the brink of oblivion.

Like most of you, I did not know of Catherine Ashton prior to her being chosen for this post. Thus, I cannot say what sort of job she'll do. EARTHTimes offers this profile on her:
Catherine Margaret Ashton, the 52-year-old British Labour politician set to succeed Peter Mandelson as European Union (EU) trade commissioner in Brussels, has held a number of middle-ranking posts in the British government. She has been responsible for issues including education, justice, equality and human rights.

As leader of the House of Lords, a position to which she was promoted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007, Ashton was a key figure in securing the parliamentary passage of the Lisbon Reform Treaty through the upper house of the British parliament.

Ashton was given a life peerage under the previous government of Tony Blair in 1999 and has since then been known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, taking the title from her native town of Upholland, in the northern county of Lancashire. In 2001, Ashton was made parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department for Education and Skills, where she dealt with issues ranging from school policies to a ban on smacking by childminders. In 2004, she took up a similar role at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, dealing with human rights, equality and justice issues...
Other than helping secure the Lisbon Agenda through the House of Lords, I can't really point to anything significant that suggests she has worked on EU and/or trade issues (shades of Palin?) Although it's not wise to make a quick judgment of what she'll be able to do in her new role, it may have been rash to choose someone who, on the surface, is new to this sort of thing (Palin, anyone?) While EC President Manuel Barroso has been quick to back her, the trade negotiation set is not so sure if she's the right woman for the job due to her relative obscurity at a critical juncture. From Reuters:
The naming of a largely unknown, junior British politician on Friday as new EU trade chief is a setback to efforts to reach an early deal on the World Trade organization's (WTO) Doha round, trade diplomats said.

Catherine Ashton's appointment as European Trade Commissioner, replacing Peter Mandelson, prompted incredulity among the Geneva trade community. "It doesn't give you a lot of confidence that anything can be pulled together," said one influential WTO ambassador, adding that prospects for a deal had shifted since yesterday. The poor reception towards Ashton was attributed to her inexperience and lack of profile.

[Mandelson] was widely respected as master of the trade brief and a driving force behind efforts to liberalize trade in the Doha round, launched in late 2001. "Mandelson's departure at this juncture, when we are so delicately poised, is clearly a huge setback," India's WTO ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia told Reuters. "He provided great leadership to the Doha process and took many risks to take the talks forward. He will be sorely missed." In an interview with Reuters shortly after he was appointed to his new position, Mandelson said time had run out for an early Doha breakthrough.

Ashton, a 51-year-old economist, previously held junior ministerial positions in the departments of Education and Skills, Constitutional Affairs and Justice, including responsibility for international trade in legal services.
Feel free to chip in if you know more about her. For the rest of us, we'll just have to wait and see what she brings to trade's biggest negotiating table.