Auteur: ANDREW WILLIS
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, looks set to swap portfolios with her trade colleague Catherine Ashton once the Lisbon Treaty comes into effect on 1 December.
The imminent switchover, divulged by a number of EU officials on Monday (23 November), will facilitate Ms Ashton's move to her new foreign policy job as the EU's high representative.
Ms Ashton's departure had raised a question mark over who would take over in the important trade post, with a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference set to take place in Geneva between 30 November and 2 December.
While the meeting will not be a formal negotiating session, a number of important issues are set to be discussed, including the Doha round of multilateral trade talks that countries hope to complete next year.
Ms Ferrero-Waldner, a conservative politician from the Austrian Peoples' Party, served as the country's foreign minister from 2000-2004, and prior to that also served as the influential chef de protocole for former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
One of the important tasks in Ms Ferrero-Waldner's new brief will be the maintenance of strong commercial ties with China in the face of an upsurge in trade disagreements between the two sides, in part the result of the economic downturn.
Already this year, the WTO has ruled against Chinese restrictions on the distribution of Western music and movies, and against the EU over subsidies for commercial aircraft sector.
Added to this, the commission recently asked the WTO to rule on a dispute with the Asian giant over raw materials and may go ahead with a formal proposal later this month to extend import tariffs on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes.
Ms Ashton will take the record of this increased bickering into her new job as high representative, a role that includes the creation of stronger foreign policy ties with China.
Although considered to be a rising superpower, the country's administration has so far been reluctant to apply extensive pressure in areas of EU concern such as human rights in Myanmar or the military threat posed by North Korea.
The double-hatted high representative post, created under the Lisbon Treaty, merges the foreign policy, job currently carried out by Javier Solana, and that of the commission's external relations chief.
The quick take-up of this latter position has been greatly facilitated by the fact that Ms Ashton is already a commissioner, say EU officials, with commission president Jose Manuel Barroso allowed to switch commissioner portfolios under EU rules.
Ms Ashton, as she will also be a member of the commission in her new role, will face a hearing by MEPs, who test all new commissioners.
As she was already a commission member, the fact that she starts the new job next week is not seen as so problematic for MEPs, who jealously guard their powers of scrutiny over commissioners.
However, Ms Ashton is expected to participate in an exchange of views with the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee on 2 December before the full hearings for all commissioners take place in January.