Sunday

26th Feb 2017

EU in east-west divide on foreign affairs job

Italian foreign affairs minister Federica Mogherini has emerged as a frontrunner for the EU foreign affairs job, but eastern member states find her too Russia-friendly and have threatened to block her appointment.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius on Tuesday (15 July) was the first leader to go on the record against Mogherini.

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"The Italian foreign minister's candidacy will not be supported," he told public broadcaster LRT. He added that his view is shared by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who will represent his country at the EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

The Baltic states, as well as Poland and Bulgaria, have threatened to put the decision on the foreign affairs post to a vote. But in order to get a blocking minority, they would need the support of the other eastern countries - Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic.

They have so far taken a more neutral stance.

But Italian news agency Ansa on Tuesday reported, citing sources “close” to incoming European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, as saying that “10 to 11” countries are now lined up aganist her appointment.

Juncker himself has said he wants someone "strong and experienced" to fill the post. EU leaders have to be "in agreement" with Juncker when making the appointment.

At the core of the resistance is Mogherini's friendly attitude toward Russia.

Her first foreign trip under the Italian EU presidency was to Kiev and Moscow, where she met Russian leader Vladimir Putin and invited him to an EU event in Italy in October.

Both she personally and the Italian government more broadly oppose tougher EU sanctions and support the construction of South Stream - a pipeline, part of which is to be built by an Italian firm, that will pump gas from Russia to south-east Europe bypassing Ukraine.

Her opponents also say that she, like her predecessor in the EU post, Catherine Ashton, lacks top-level foreign policy experience and that her appointment would downgrade the importance of the EU foreign service.

The 41-year old Mogherini, who became Italy’s foreign minister in February, studied political philosophy and the link between religion and politics in Islam. She entered the Italian foreign ministry in 2003, specialising in the Middle East Peace Process, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The fact that an Italian, Mario Draghi, is already installed at the helm of the European Central Bank, is another argument against her elevation.

But a meeting of Socialist leaders in Paris last month, saw Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi push for her nomination despite the counter-arguments, in a bid backed by French president Francois Hollande.

Socialist leaders later agreed that Hollande would present their joint position at the EU summit.

The centre-left camp also plans to push for the post of EU Council chief to go to a Socialist after Juncker, a centre-right politician, got the most senior EU post, and amid expectations that the new chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers will also go to a conservative - Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos.

The centre-left demands come despite the fact that Socialist Martin Schulz just got re-assigned the European Parliament president job.

Centre-right leaders have said the centre-left cannot get three out of four top jobs, especially since they lost the EU elections in May.

But the parliament post is split in a deal which will see a centre-right MEP take over the office after two and a half years. Meanwhile, some centre-left politicians have questioned whether the EU foreign policy post or the parliament job can be counted on an equal footing with the Council and Commission.

“The question is what counts as a top post?” one EU official told this website.

An alternative to Mogherini eyed by some eastern members is the RU's current humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva.

A respected former World Bank official loosely affiliated with the centre-right and more neutral geopolitically, Georgieva is however hampered by not having the support of her own government, Bulgaria.

Some EU leaders, notably Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Hollande, would prefer to agree an overall package of all the EU jobs at the summit dinner on Wednesday evening.

But the leaders’ meeting might see just the foreign service position filled if there is no general agreement.

The EU foreign post is double-hatted as a European Commission vice-president. The set-up means that whoever gets it must be approved by Juncker, undergo a European Parliament hearing, and be voted in by MEPs along with the other 26 commissioners in October.

But the EU Council post can wait until the incumbent, Herman Van Rompuy, steps down in November.

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