Critics claim she lacks high-level experience, but Italy’s foreign minister is not lacking in knowledge and self-assurance
In late November 2012, while Matteo Renzi was making an ill-fated bid for leadership of the Italian centre-left, a young MP from his Democratic Party (PD) piped up on Twitter to remark: “OK, Renzi has quite a lot to learn about foreign policy … He won’t make the pass mark, I fear #thirdgrade.” When he won the PD primaries the following winter, Renzi – canny as ever – hired his sharp-tongued critic as the party’s spokesperson on Europe and international affairs. Once prime minister, he ushered her into the top job at Italy‘s foreign office.
Now, the shoe is firmly on the other foot: it is Federica Mogherini – on her way to Brussels to become Cathy Ashton’s successor in the EU – who, according to her critics, has a lot to learn. And the jury is out on whether the 41-year-old Roman- who has six months’ experience in government as foreign minister, no more and no less – will make the grade. Le Monde, the French daily, last week said her appointment would be “a sad day for Europe”.
To Brussels box-tickers, Mogherini, as a woman and a social democrat, meets two of the chief criteria for the job. But her critics believe she lacks the proper credentials for a role that has always struggled to be as grand in practice as it is on paper. More than a decade younger than Ashton was when she started in 2009, the Italian had her first taste of executive power in late February, when she replaced the highly experienced Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner, in the Farnesina.
In Rome, she was viewed as the archetypal Renzi government minister: fresh-faced, vigorous and, it was hoped, effective. In Brussels, when her name started circulating as a potential new high representative several months later, it was inextricably linked with the suddenly risen star of Italy and the PD, boosted on the international stage by a landslide European election victory in which Renzi emerged as a powerful new force on the centre-left.
Despite her charismatic champion, Mogherini, to many, still lacked clout. But others say that, while her relative youth and lack of high-level experience are undeniable, she has other strengths that could yet see her thrive. “I believe her strong points are not to be underestimated,” said Ettore Greco, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “She knows how to work hard, how to work in a team; and she has always conducted herself with, I’d say, great composure … I can see her as a mediator. And then there’s her experience, her contacts built up gradually during years of work at relatively high levels … Ever since the start of her political career, she has worked on foreign policy. She is not a political neophyte.”
Born in the Italian capital in 1973, the daughter of a set designer who worked with some of the giants of Italian postwar cinema, Mogherini graduated with a degree in political science from La Sapienza university. Her thesis was on political Islam.
An active member of the Democrats of the Left (DS), a social democratic party containing many former Communists, she soon got noticed, and specialised in foreign affairs, working particularly on ties with the US Democrat party. In 2008, the year after the DS merged with others into the centre-left PD, she was elected as an MP for the first time. In February, aged 40, she became the youngest foreign minister in the history of the Italian republic.
Since her arrival on the national and international stage in February, Mogherini has quietly impressed many with her knowledge and self-assurance, demonstrating, too, that not all Italians’ English is as comic as the premier’s. (Hers is near perfect; she also has fluent French and, according to her online biography, a little Spanish.) She keeps an impressive pace of international visits, all of which she details on her website, BlogMog.it, in the manner, sniped the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, of “a teenager confiding” in the pages of her journal.
But these haven’t all gone smoothly. She raised eyebrows in a July dominated by concerns over Russia’s stance on Ukraine, when she visited Kiev and Moscow and invited Vladimir Putin to an economics summit in Milan in October. Soon after, a group of eastern European countries united to try to block her candidacy for the high representative job, which they said was unacceptable due to Rome’s approach to Moscow.
“But I think when she was doing that, she was probably just following her brief from the [Italian] machine,” said a diplomatic source. “This is a question of differences over the tactical and possibly even strategic attitude towards Russia which is Italy’s rather than hers.” Greco said: “On the European stage, she will of course have to take into account a quite different mood and quite different climate where Moscow is concerned and she should not be – one would hope – conditioned by these Italian reflexes.”
On the BlogMog, Mogherini, a married mother of two, says that, as well as reading crime novels and spending time with her family, her big passion is travel: “Anywhere, anytime, and anyhow.” (The Farnesina said she flies economy class “whenever possible”.) Even if question marks remain over her experience and diplomatic clout, on the globe-trotting front, at least, she should be on safe ground.