Ashton  has faced criticism for her lack of international experience [File: AFP]

Catherine Ashton is a British Labour party politician who rose through the ranks of European politics to become the European Union's new foreign policy chief.

Named as the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy by EU leaders on Thursday, Ashton has never been elected to public office.

Born in Upholland in Lancanshire in the UK in 1956, Ashton studied economics at the University of London.

She began her career as Director of Business in the Community, an organisation working to fight inequality in business.

Ashton went on to run a local health authority from 1998 until 2001, and was later named to Britain's House of Lords as Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

She was appointed as a life peer by the ruling Labour party in 1999.

Making her mark

It was there that Ashton began to make her mark in politics, taking on roles as education minister in 2001 and positions in the constitutional affairs and justice departments.

She was appointed leader of the House of Lords in 2007. She later replaced Peter Mandelson as EU trade commissioner last year when he quit the post to become the British trade and industry minister.

Ashton had faced some criticism ahead of her latest appointment from EU legislators who questioned her lack of international experience.

But she dismissed critics, saying that she had led British trade talks on legal services with South Africa and India.

Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, also defended her appointment on Thursday, praising the EU decision.

He said Ashton had behaved "brilliantly" in her current post and would give Britain a powerful voice within the EU.

Source: Agencies