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Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, PC (born 20 March 1956) has been appointed first High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (EU), a post that will come into existence when the Lisbon Treaty takes effect on 1 December 2009. She was appointed to this post at a summit of the 27 European Council leaders in Brusselsmarker on 19 November 2009, which also nominated Belgiummarker's prime minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent President of the European Council. Concurrent with Ashton's appointment as High Representative, she becomes a vice-president of the European Commission which is subject to confirmation by the European Parliamentmarker.

A Britishmarker Labour politician, Ashton was made a life peer in 1999 by the Labour government and held junior ministerial appointments in three government departments. She was later appointed Leader of the House of Lords and, in that role, was instrumental in steering the Lisbon Treaty through Britain's Upper House. In 2008, she succeeded Peter Mandelson as Commissioner for Trade in the European Commissionmarker.

Early life

Catherine Ashton was born in Uphollandmarker, Lancashiremarker on 20 March 1956 (on being awarded a Labour life-peerage in 1999, she chose her title as a tribute to her home-town). She attended Upholland Grammar Schoolmarker in Billinge Higher Endmarker, Lancashiremarker, then Wigan Mining and Technical College in Wiganmarker. Ashton went on to undertake (in her own words) "a broad degree in economics" at Bedford College (now part of Royal Holloway), University of London; she graduated with a BSc in sociology in 1977.

Career

In the United Kingdom

Between 1977 and 1979 Ashton worked as an administrator at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was later elected as its national treasurer and subsequently as one of its vice-chairs. From 1979 to 1981 she was Business Manager of The Coverdale Organisation, a management consultancy. As of 1983 she worked for the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. From 1983 to 1989 she was Director of Business in the Community working with business to tackle inequality, and established the Employers' Forum on Disability, Opportunity Now, and the Windsor Fellowship. For most of the 1990s, she worked as a freelance policy adviser. She chaired the Health Authority in Hertfordshiremarker from 1998 to 2001, and her children's school governing body, and became a Vice President of the National Council for One Parent Families.

She was made a life peer as Baroness Ashton of Upholland in 1999, at the request of Tony Blair. In June 2001 she was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Education and Skills. In 2002 she was appointed minister for Sure Start in the same department. In September 2004, she was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with responsibilities including the National Archivesmarker and the Public Guardianship Office. Ashton was sworn of the Privy Council in 2006, and became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the new Ministry of Justice in May 2007.

In 2005 she was voted "Minister of the Year" by The House Magazine and "Peer of the Year" by Channel 4. In 2006 she won the "Politician of the Year" award at the annual Stonewall Awards, awarded to those that have made a positive impact on the lives of British LGBT people.

On 28 June 2007 the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, appointed her to the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. As Leader of the House, she was responsible for passing the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords.

In the European institutions

European Commission

On 3 October 2008, she was nominated to replace Peter Mandelson as the UK's European Commissioner in Brussels. Under Article 213 of the Treaty establishing the European Community as amended, Commissioners must not engage in any other occupation during their term of office, whether gainful or not. To enable Ashton to take up her position legally, she used the procedural device used in 1984 for Lord Cockfield and took a leave of absence from the House of Lords on 14 October 2008, retaining the peerage but not her seat.

Her appointment as Trade Commissioner was scrutinised by the European Parliamentmarker. She was criticised by Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative MEP, on the basis that she "has no background in trade issues at a time when the EU is engaged in critical negotiations with Canada, Korea and the WTO". However, following her public confirmation hearing by the Trade Committee of the European Parliamentmarker, Ashton was approved by the Parliament on 22 October 2008 with 538 to 40 votes, and 63 abstentions. She has since finished negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement with Korea and initialled it in October 2009.

Ashton's appointment as European Commissioner was subject to Council approval by qualified majority under Article 215 of the Treaty establishing the European Community as amended.

EU High Representative

On 19 November 2009, Ashton was appointed the EU's first High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Her appointment was agreed by a summit of 27 European Union leaders in Brussels. After actively pushing for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to become President of the European Council, Gordon Brown eventually relented on the condition that the High Representative position was awarded to a Briton. Ashton's relative obscurity caused considerable comment in the media with The Guardian newspaper reporting that her appointment as High Representative had astonished friends and provoked criticism from others. Former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke said: "Cathy is a bit surprised and so is everyone else. I have seen Cathy in action. I have great respect for her. She is excellent at building good relations with people and a good negotiator."

On the other hand, critics say she is likely to be out of her depth, never having been elected to any office. "Cathy just got lucky," one Whitehall source said. "The appointment of her and Herman Van Rompuy [as European Council president] were a complete disgrace. They are no more than garden gnomes." But Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who became friends with Ashton when she was a minister at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, said her critics were wrong: "People underestimate Cathy at their peril. She is not a great big bruiser. She is a persuader and a charmer. That is the secret of her success." Her friend, Ian McCartney MP said on her appointment: "She is a Wigan girl who has really made good... She is supportive of working people and has never forgotten her roots."

The morning after her appointment, Lady Ashton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job. I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice."

Personal life

She lives in St Albansmarker with her husband, Peter Kellner, (whom she married in 1988 in Westminstermarker, London), the President of online polling organisation, YouGov. She has two children, both born in Cambridge: Robert Peter Kellner (born 1989) and Rebecca Clare Kellner (born late 1991 / early 1992) and three stepchildren.

She was awarded an Honorary Degree from the University of East Londonmarker in 2005.

She has a full-sized Dalek in her sitting room (a present from her husband).

Allegations of covert Soviet support for CND

Baroness Ashton is facing questions in the Europen Parliament over her role as national treasurer in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, amid claims that it may have had financial links to the Soviet Union.

The United Kingdom Independence Party has written to Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, asking him to investigate whether Lady Ashton was party to payments that he alleged were made to CND from the Soviet regime in Moscow. UKIP claims that it has obtained documents that show that the first audited accounts of CND, for 1982-83, found that 38 per cent of its income for that year, or £176,197, could not be traced back to the original donors. The person responsible for this part of CND fund-raising, from anonymous donors, they allege, was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.” The letter, based on allegations made by Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident, claimed that it is “very likely” that CND received “unidentified income” from Moscow in the 1980s.

Lady Ashton’s office declined to discuss CND’s funding in detail. It said that she “left CND in 1983 and had no involvement after that”.

Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party’s then leader and Member of the European Parliament, was reprimanded by the President of the Parliament for the tone of his speech in the European Parliament in which he asked whether Mr Barroso would to investigate whether Lady Ashton had received money “from enemies of the West” .

This smear campaign against CND is not new: the same allegations of 'funds from Moscow' were made in in the late 1970s. Despite intelligence service penetration of CND, no evidence was ever produced to support the illicit funding claim. It is not unusual in Britain for private individuals to donate anonymously: this is equally true of UKIP and other political parties.

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