EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU's new foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, was hard on Iran but cautious on Israel and Russia in a lively hearing with MEPs on Monday (11 January).
The three-hour-long event at the European Parliament in Brussels kicked off a series of 26 hearings with commission nominees that is to culminate in a plenary vote next week on the new EU executive as a whole.
Around 60 deputies fired questions at Ms Ashton in a meeting marked by intense media attention, heckling on nuclear disarmament and applause for Ms Ashton's promises to work closely with parliament in future.
The questions ranged from the big foreign policy topics of the day to the niceties of EU institutional infighting and curve balls designed to test her knowledge on details such as funding for EU projects in Afghanistan.
Ms Ashton highlighted Iran, Israel, Russia, the EU mission in Afghanistan, nation-building in Bosnia and support for human rights abroad as priorities.
She hinted that she would back further sanctions against Iran if the country continues to ignore international calls to open its nuclear programme to scrutiny. "If we don't have the rules kept to, then we have to take action in some form," she said.
She re-iterated her support for a two-state solution on Israel and Palestine, but did not criticise Israel's occupation of the West Bank, as in her previous speech to MEPs, while underlining the importance of Israeli security.
Ms Ashton said she intends to "put pressure on Russia to make sure they see these issues in an economic way not a political one" on the question of whether Russia uses gas and oil exports to influence neighbouring states.
But the EU's top diplomat said the bloc must have a "strategic relationship" with its neighbour, while pointing to an upcoming meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow as an opportunity to start off on a new footing.
With a large chunk of MEPs' queries devoted to how Ms Ashton will work with parliament and the EU commission in future, Ms Ashton drew a line in the sand about her independence.
Happy to disappoint
She declined MEPs' requests to submit her new team of senior officials to job interview-type hearings in parliament and envisaged the new EU diplomatic service as a unique institution separate from the EU commission, giving parliament less power over its budget.
"Occasionally, I will have to disappoint the parliament," she said. "I don't want this [her internal appointments] to become a long, protracted process."
In a glimpse into how she sees the new body ahead of her formal proposal on its structure to EU states in April, Ms Ashton said she will take care of foreign policy "strategy" while three commissioners - on trade, development and neighbourhood policy - will implement ideas on the ground.
She added that her proposal may include a special school for EU diplomats in order to give the institution its own culture.
"This is a unique body and we will need to have training for our diplomats so that they recognise it is a different service to the one they came from," Ms Ashton said.
The commissioner designate failed to answer some of the deputies' brain teasers, such as precisely how much the EU is to spend on its civilian mission in Afghanistan this year. She also appeared poorly-informed on the UN security council and on Russia's arrest of one of the laureates of the EU's 2009 human rights award, the Sakharov prize.
But she showed a command of detail in other areas, such as the date of the next meeting of the Geneva group on the Georgia conflict and the date of the second round of Ukrainian presidential elections.
Cool under fire
The liveliest part of the hearing saw British Conservative MEPs attack Ms Ashton, who hails from the British centre-left, for her past as an activist in the anti-nuclear pressure group, CND, with one Tory member calling on her to apologise to former Communist states for her bad judgment.
Amid bays and heckles reminiscent of the more rowdy lower chamber in London, Ms Ashton smiled and kept her cool.
"I have never hidden what I did and I am not ashamed of it," she said. "When I was a young person I marched because I believed we should get rid of nuclear weapons. You can disagree with how I did it but not with why I did it."