How far do you get with a fancy title? Federica Mogherini is the European Union’s top dog on foreign and security policy yet unknown to most of the EU citizens she represents. Is this the result of bad PR or a consequence of a fragmented opinion on foreign affairs among the member states?
Although an unfamiliar face to most, Federica Mogherini is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This means that she is the EU’s highest ranking diplomat, in charge of the member states common external relations, with mandate to speak for the entire Union in international policy matters when and if all member states agree. The biggest notch on her bedpost to date is the the successful nuclear deal with Iran she helped negotiate, although a lot of it was actually done by her predecessor, Catherine Ashton.
Some called Mogherini inexperienced when she took office just over a year ago. The 42-year-old left-wing Italian was moving up the power ladder in record time.
She became Italy’s third female foreign minister to the Renzi cabinet in February 2014, after seven years in parliament. Eight month later she was nominated to the Commission and stepped into office as High Representative on the 1st of November.
Better, faster, stronger?
Mogherini has taken a different approach to the job than her predecessor. Where Ashton was cautious and calculated in her approach Mogherini is direct, showing a deep interest in and knowledgeable assessment of the topics at hand, for example the war in Ukraine.
“She appears to be more comfortable in the role than Ashton ever was,” says Annika Ström Melin, political commentator and Brussels corresponded for leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
“Her strength is that she is personally engaged in these questions and that she truly wants to find solutions.”
Mogherini displays the traits of a true diplomate at the negotiation table.
“She talks to all parties involved and has the ability to work with people whose opinion she does not share.”
Compared to Ashton who was guarded and reserved, the new High Representative also has a good relationship to press. Melin points out that it is important to remember that they face very different challenges, however.
Ashton got the position in 2009, right after the rules and structure of the EU had been changed through the Lisbon Treaty. This reform also altered the external policy structure of the EU, increasing the power but also the responsibility of the High Representative by integrating the position into the Commission.
“Ashton had to build it all up. There was hardly a phone in place when she took office,” Melin says.
The current Commission is also more powerful than the previous one was, largely due to the fact that Jean-Claude Juncker is a much stronger leader than his predecessor Manuel Barroso. Federica Mogherini has made an effort as High Representative to become an even more integrated part of the team. She symbolically moved her office to the Berlaymont building, where the rest of the Commission sits and maintains a close relationship with president Junker and vice-president Frans Timmermans, a key player in the Commission who emphasise the importance of working together.
It has not been all praise during Mogherini’s first year in office however. Her ambition to move away from the boxed in and very specific nature of foreign policy discussion in the EU, in preference for a broader focus on general issues and less and thematic approach has the smaller member states on edge.
“They worry that the bigger states are going to take commando and that they will lose their voice. With this approach focus ends up being directed in odd ways and it is hard to reach results,” says Annika Ström Melin. As a result, Mogherini comes off diffuse at times.
“She has a tendency to talk a lot without really saying much.”
Given the current system, where the power over foreign affairs and security policy still lies with the national governments of the member states. There are clear limits to the power of the High Representatives, regardless of how good a diplomat the person holding the position is. In practice she is more of an internal leader for the union, trying to unify their opinion, than a voice outwards. The EU still has a hard time agreeing on foreign policy and big powers, such as France and Germany, tends to run the show on their own.
“The Common Foreign and Security Policy exist in name but not in practice. In today’s world, it does not make much sense for each of the 28 member states to have their own foreign policies, but rather to pool their capabilities and resources in a common policy,” says Juliane Schmidt, political analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, via e-mail to Euroscope.
Annika Ström Melin adds that the lack of supra-national power over foreign policy might indeed be the reason why Federica Mogherini is not a household name for European citizens today.
“If there is no common policy on foreign affairs in the EU there is nothing for her to say.”
According to Juliane Schmidt a change of Mogherini’s role as High Representative is not in sight.
“This will not happen very soon. It requires a shift of competences to the EU level and member states are still very reluctant to change anything. With regards to the High Representative, that means making the most of a very limited role.”
She questions whether the fact that Mogherini is not a familiar figure for the citizens is a problem at all.
“Does she really have to be? Compared to the visibility of national foreign ministers, I don’t think there is such a huge difference. I also think that this is not her role. She is supposed to represent the Union to the outside, projecting an image of the EU in the world. Nonetheless, I think there is a general problem of the EU not being visible enough to the citizens.”