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Low-key new EU foreign chief vows 'quiet diplomacy'

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(LONDON) - Britain's Catherine Ashton, who has risen from obscurity to become the EU's foreign policy chief, makes a virtue of not being an "ego on legs", but critics question whether she has the clout to do the job.

Her quiet, efficient style has taken her from running a business equality body in Britain to sitting in the House of Lords, its unelected upper parliamentary chamber, and then to the EU as trade commissioner.

But her new role is on another level altogether -- giving divided Europe a voice on the world stage in talks with major powers like China and the United States.

"The skills I bring to it (are) of negotiation, of diplomacy," Ashton said this month after getting the job.

"I describe myself as not being an ego on legs, but being able to go out there and actually make the deals, get relationships we're going to need for the future".

She secured the prestigious post after Britain dropped its calls for former prime minister Tony Blair to become EU president, a job now going to former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy,

Ashton was born in Upholland, northwest England, in 1956 and studied economics at the University of London.

After graduating, she worked for pressure group the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), becoming treasurer.

This led to recent claims from right-wingers -- strongly denied -- that CND accepted cash from the Soviet Union while she was there.

Ashton later spent six years as director of Business In The Community, encouraging companies to implement greater equality and diversity, and was also chairwoman of a county health authority between 1998 to 2001.

She was named to the House of Lords as a life peer by the ruling Labour party in 1999, taking the title Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

From there, she became an education minister in 2001 before stints at the departments of constitutional affairs and justice.

She was named leader of the House of Lords -- in charge of steering government legislation through the upper chamber -- in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's first Cabinet in 2007.

Her tasks included helping to secure parliament's ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which created the jobs of foreign policy supremo and president.

When Peter Mandelson quit as European trade commissioner to return to the British cabinet in 2008, it was reported that Brown was asked to send a woman to replace him to improve the European Commission's gender balance.

A struggling Brown did not want to send an elected lawmaker from the House of Commons because that could trigger a by-election defeat, so he picked the little-known Ashton, the Times newspaper reported.

In Europe, Ashton has already led on trade talks with China and secured a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

She has impressed many in Brussels by the way she has mastered the European Commission establishment, a British official said.

"In the time she has been here she has created a very strong impression she is someone who is well respected in the corridors of Brussels," said the official.

Ashton describes her style as "quiet diplomacy" with a determination "to get things done".

But many commentators in Britain are baffled by her rise.

"From obscurity to the most powerful woman in the UK," was the Guardian newspaper's front page headline after she was named to the job.

"She is totally untainted by any experience of democratic election at any stage in her career... this serial appointee is custom-made for high EU office," added the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

Ashton is married to Peter Kellner, a political commentator and president of British polling firm YouGov, and has three stepchildren and two children.

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