LONDON // The embattled EU foreign policy chief will head to the Middle East next week determined to silence her critics who claim that she is not up to the job. Baroness shton, a relative unknown when she became the surprise choice as the EU's first High Representative for Foreign Affairs late last year, looks likely to use the trip to Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan to demonstrate the assertive leadership that her many critics in Europe say she is sadly lacking.
In the past few days, Lady Ashton has done her best to show her mettle, roundly condemning Israel's plan to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, expressing her intention to visit Gaza during next week's trip, and putting on her most feisty performance to date in an address to the European Parliament on Wednesday. Lady Ashton, 53, a former junior minister and leader of the House of Lords before becoming EU trade commissioner in 2008, was appointed high representative amid the horse trading that eventually resulted in Herman van Rompuy, the Belgian prime minister, getting the job as the EU's first fulltime president.
Tony Blair had been regarded as the natural choice for the presidential post. But when this was blocked by Europe's smaller nations, the post of high representative was offered to a UK candidate as an apparent consolation prize. The job, which is arguably more important than the president's, is to represent the EU at summits throughout the world. But David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, turned it down and prime minister Gordon Brown, to virtually everyone's astonishment, put forward Lady Ashton.
Since taking over the role in December, she has been criticised for her low profile and for failing to make her mark on the world's stage. Lady Ashton has also run into problems in trying to establish the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's new diplomatic service that is intended to embrace Europe's political, diplomatic, military and peace-keeping operations. However, disputes and obstacles erected by existing EU institutions - notably within the European Commission, the union's executive arm - have led to delays and confusion.
Some Members of the European Paliament want the EEAS to be accountable, both in terms of its budget and its political initiatives, to the European Parliament - a move opposed by many of the 27 nations' governments who are anxious to establish the service's autonomy. Last weekend, Mr Miliband sent Lady Ashton a letter that he claimed was intended to show his support for her battle with Brussels bureaucrats, but that many interpreted as aimed at getting her to improve her performance.
Several European governments have also been infuriated by the fact that Lady Ashton appeared to be nothing more than a spectator last week when José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, imposed one of his closest aides as EU ambassador to Washington, Europe's most important foreign posting Lady Ashton acknowledged some of the problems on her visit to the European Parliament this week. "Right now we have a chance to build what many across Europe have long wanted - a stronger, more credible European foreign policy," she told the body's members.
"Of course, the European External Action Service will be key to deliver this. Any time you create something new, there will be resistance. Some prefer to minimise perceived losses rather than maximise collective gains." The problems with the EU bureaucracy, however, have not stopped the personal attacks on Lady Ashton, with Mario Mauro, an Italian MEP, telling her to "show determination in defending her role".
Kristian Vigenin, a Bulgarian socialist, warned her: "There seems to be competition as to your role between the main EU institutions. But division can only make the EU look weak." But the most biting criticism has come from Paul Nuttall, a member of the avowedly anti-European UK Independence Party. He accused Lady Ashton this week of lacking credibility, adding: "Europe needs a credible foreign policy representative but how can that be possible when its high representative is incredible?
"You seem to stumble from one crisis to another, so much so that the UK foreign minister at the weekend had to tell you to buck up. We said you would be out of your depth and we have been proved right." Charles Tannock, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, told her on Wednesday: "We look to you to seize the initiative and assert authority and leadership - and knock heads together if necessary.
"We will support you in your efforts, if you show you are up to the daunting challenge. This muddling through and hesitation does no credit to the EU's ambitions." In response, Lady Ashton said: "You ask: 'Is she up to the challenge?' I hope you'll start to see assertive leadership." And that assertive leadership is expected to begin to become apparent when she arrives in the Middle East next Wednesday.