BRUSSELS - The European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, has had a tough time since taking on the job four months ago, but will try to turn things around this week as she sets out her foreign policy goals.
Ashton, 53, was EU leaders' surprise choice to be their high representative for foreign affairs and security policy at a summit last November, succeeding Spain's Javier Solana in the high-profile post despite having no diplomatic experience.
The Briton, a former health administrator and EU trade commissioner who has never held elected office, made a stumbling start, leaving many media commentators and diplomats to dismiss her as a lightweight novice, ill-suited for the portfolio.
At the weekend she began a fight back against her critics, laying out the framework for a new European diplomatic corps at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Spain and winning broad support for her plans.
On Wednesday, in a speech to the European Parliament, she will set out her foreign policy agenda in more detail, with the Middle East, Iran, Ukraine and the Balkans expected to figure prominently, as well as the diplomatic service initiative.
Next week she will visit Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria and Jordan to give EU impetus to the Middle East process at a time when Israel and the Palestinians look set to start indirect talks via the United States on resolving statehood issues.
The next month is going to be a big test of her substance, said an EU diplomat who handles foreign affairs.
Everything that's gone before has been 'who said what about whom'. Now it's about the actual substance of foreign policy. She needs to set out where EU foreign policy is going for the rest of her five-year mandate, he said.
While Ashton may have ambitious foreign policy plans, giving the European Union more clout in international diplomacy -- the sort of influence that matches its strength in global trade and finance and its 500 million population -- is a tall order.
The EU's 27 member states have shown they are able to reach agreement on issues such as climate change, immigration and trade. But the bigger states tend to carve out their own foreign policies rather than subscribing to an EU-wide agenda.
They sometimes differ on sensitive matters such as relations with Russia, Turkey and Cuba.
The result is often either a watered-down common position, agreement on less sensitive issues or backing for policies that are directly EU-related, such as the new diplomatic service.
Ashton is expected to focus attention on building the EU diplomatic corps, known as the External Action Service, which will have as many as 3,000 diplomats around the world and be overseen by her. The first appointments have sparked turf wars.
But she has also made clear that she wants the EU to have a bigger role in Middle East diplomacy -- working closely with the United States, Russia and the United Nations -- and to use a combination of aid and trade to strengthen overseas ties.
Analysts say it is essential that she chooses a few priorities and masters the brief, rather than trying to cover every issue the EU faces and getting lost in the melee.
She was always saying that she was in a marathon and that being in a marathon she could pace herself, said Daniel Korski, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, referring to Ashton's five-year mandate.
Now she's beginning to realise that she's got to get up to speed quickly, look at who she's up against and start looking like a winner. She can sustain herself, but she also has to focus on issues where she can deliver something concrete.
(editing by Paul Taylor)