Thursday, October 23, 2008

European Parliament approves new trade commissioner

The European parliament on Wednesday (Oct 22) overwhelmingly approved the appointment of British Baroness Catherine Ashton as the European Commissioner in charge of trade. In a plenary session in Strasbourg, 538 MEPs voted for the new Commissioner for European trade policies. There were 40 votes against her appointment and 63 abstentions.

Ashton was nominated earlier this month by the British government to succeed Peter Mandelson, following his appointment to the British government.

The President of the European Commission and the Council - the institution that regroups the Member states - having already given the green light for the appointment of the first woman commissioner for trade, it remained only for parliament to vote.

On Tuesday (Oct 21), Ashton had a three-hour hearing in parliament during which she was tested on trade. She is now a member of the European Commission in her own right till the European elections due in June 2009 when a new Commission will be appointed.

During the hearing in parliament, MEPs posed questions to the commissioner-designate and she showed good knowledge of her new trade portfolio. In particular, Ashton, who is an economist by training, was asked about the ongoing financial crisis, future of the Doha Round and its overtaking by the bilateral trade negotiations.

With a short time to prepare as a result of the fast-tracking of the approval process, the Commissioner got praise from the European law-makers. Spanish MEP Ignasi Guardans, vice-President of the parliament trade committee said, "in her responses to some tough and often highly politicised questioning, she demonstrated strong political skills and composure which is evidence of good negotiating skills."

“The committee had some natural concerns about her lack of direct experience of international commerce or foreign affairs but with such a short time to prepare, she persuaded the committee that she understood the link between trade and the impact on the European small and medium sized business sector and jobs,” Guardans added.

After the approval by the parliament, she said she would pay her first visit to WTO director general Pascal Lamy in Geneva later this week to assure him that pursuing a successful Doha Round remains absolutely central to Europe’s trade policy.

Responding to the confirmation of Ashton as new trade commissioner, Benedict Southworth, Director of the World Development Movement, said: “The European Commission needs to radically overhaul its trade policy and Baroness Ashton is now in a unique position to do so. The business-as-usual approach of wholesale deregulation and trade liberalisation is out of step with today’s climate of global financial, food and energy crises.”

“Instead, sustainable development and tackling poverty must be at the heart of European trade policy. Baroness Ashton now has an excellent opportunity to draw a line under the past and Commissioner Mandelson’s legacy of unfair trade deals that hit the poorest hardest,” Southworth added.

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