Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini made an auspicious start to her tenure as the incoming European Union foreign policy chief.
After a summer of uncertainty over whether she would win the post and broad murmurings of discontent about another relatively inexperienced politician taking the job at a time of foreign policy crisis in Europe, Ms. Mogherini displayed a mix of poise, linguistic skill and some clear-eyed grit at a news conference soon after her nomination was confirmed.
Presenting herself as a standard-bearer for the new generation of European politicians, Ms. Mogherini promised to bring energy and “devotion” to the job, which she is due to start on October 31, and to seek the right balance between compromise and action.
“We are very much aware of how serious and difficult the situation is,” she said. “Starting from Iraq and Syria, going to Libya…if we point a compass in Brussels and draw a circle, it’s all our neighborhood that is suffering from conflicts and war. So I know how challenging and difficult the task will be.”
Unquestionably, Ms. Mogherini, who at 40 became in February the youngest Italian foreign minister since World War II, will bring a new style to the job.
She is more media savvy and eloquent than the current foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who also arrived in the job little known but won plaudits for her work in the Iranian nuclear talks and for spearheading reconciliation talks between Serbia and Kosovo.
The Italian foreign minister is also no foreign policy novice. A political science graduate, she spent much of her time in Italy’s center-left Democratic Party devoted to external relations issues. As an Italian lawmaker, she headed Italy’s delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization parliamentary assembly.
Yet, at least in the near future, say diplomats and foreign policy watchers, Ms. Mogherini is unlikely to represent an abrupt change, either in the EU’s approach to the big issues or in her approach to the job.
“I think she will have to exercise continuity” on policy issues, said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “especially where change in foreign policy depends so much on the member states’ willingness to go a certain way.”
Apart from her thin experience at the top of Italian politics, the biggest concern about Ms. Mogherini’s selection ahead of last Saturday’s summit was her attitude to Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
While there was no explicit move to block her nomination, a July summit to pick the new foreign policy chief stalemated, in large part because of wariness among some East European and Baltic states that Ms. Mogherini would prove too soft toward Moscow.
Italy was widely seen as being cautious on ramping up sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. A July trip to Moscow, where Ms. Mogherini met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, did nothing to assuage the critics.
Yet some believe the concerns have been overdone. In reality, Ms. Mogherini continued a long Italian tradition of close ties to the Kremlin. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a close ally of Mr. Putin and governments in Rome have prioritized energy and commercial ties with Moscow.
In any case, said one diplomat who has worked with Ms. Mogherini, she will be “very, very cautious” about stepping out of the EU mainstream on Russia, given the close scrutiny her approach has received.
So far there is little sign of her doing so. For example, with Italy holding the rotating EU presidency, Rome has helped build consensus behind broader economic sanctions on Russia, which look likely to be extended on Friday.
Ms. Mogherini has sounded an increasingly tough tone. Speaking at the European Parliament on Tuesday, she said Moscow should no longer be considered one of the bloc’s so-called strategic partners and called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “an aggression.”
“I think that we need to respond in the strongest possible way to that,” she said.
Foreign policy observers in Brussels also doubt Ms. Mogherini intends to challenge the dominant position of member states in setting EU foreign policy, at least early on. Ms. Ashton cast her role very much as chairwoman of the EU’s 28 foreign ministers, working closely with capitals to try and craft consensus around policy initiatives which often emerged from the member states. Only as she grew more comfortable in the job did she take more of a lead—above all on Iran and the Balkans.
With no political base of her own and lacking a vast network of top international contacts, Ms. Mogherini appears poorly placed to challenge that model until she has proved her mettle.
“With Mogherini, the EU has decided to yet again appoint a relatively junior and inexperienced politician, which shows that the area of foreign affairs is still considered by member states—certainly the big ones—as a key competence and authority of member states,” said analysts at FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm.
The big question, diplomats in Brussels say, is whether Ms. Mogherini will gradually want to assert her own views and priorities. To do that, Mr. Techau says, she will need to carve out a major role in the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, that can provide her robust political cover.
While Ms. Ashton was little known even in British politics when she started the job, Ms. Mogherini is an ambitious and capable politician, say people who have worked with her, who after five years in Brussels will still have a long career ahead.
If she grows in the EU post to become a serious player on the foreign policy scene, able to hold her own with the likes of Mr. Putin, the Brussels post could prove a platform to bigger things.
“The jury’s still out” on how she will perform, said one senior EU diplomat. But she’s clearly “a quick-learner…who projects a sense of purpose.”