26th May 2020


Mogherini: Dousing the flames of a baptism of fire

Federica Mogherini arrived in Brussels a year ago following a rather bumpy ride through the Council to take the helm of a European External Action Service (EEAS) which was still very much experiencing growing pains.

The former Italian foreign minister came under stiff criticism before her appointment for her youth (she is 41 years old), her inexperience (she had only been foreign minister for six months), and her alleged 'too friendly' stance towards Russia.

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Once in office, she had a baptism of fire with the EU’s neighbourhood burning in the East and South. She also inherited a hectic travel schedule of summits and ministerial meetings, exacerbated by her early promise to visit all 28 member states.

But overall, she has managed better than expected.

Approaching the end of her first year in office, Mogherini has disarmed her critics. Unlike her predecessor, she had considerable, if mainly theoretical, foreign policy experience, especially in the wider Middle East, gained through her time in the think tank world as well as climbing the notoriously tricky, left-wing political ladder in Italy.

She is a quick learner, fluent in three languages, masters her speaking points, understands the wider political aspects and, unlike her predecessor, is open and friendly towards the media.

She is an avid user of social media with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. To the astonishment of officials, she often sends her own emails, reporting or commenting on meetings and phone calls she has had with other ministers.

The main criticism from inside the EEAS is that she is slow to take decisions and has not been the radical manager that many, especially in the European Parliament, had hoped for.

The reform of the EEAS this summer was something of a damp squib. The organisation is still top heavy, but member states have been reluctant to see her wield the axe as it would mean fewer positions for their own senior diplomats.

In Brussels, Mogherini works well with Presidents Tusk and Juncker. She tries to take her vice president of the Commission role seriously, attending College meetings whenever she can, and has also sought with some success to ensure better coordination with Commissioners covering trade, development policy and humanitarian relief.

Charm offensive

As a former parliamentarian, she knows how to charm the MEPs and has a good rapport with Elmar Brok, the chair of AFET.

She has also met with the chairs of the foreign policy committees in the parliaments of member states as well as national think tanks and media.

Her message is always the same - "we are much more influential when we speak with one voice."

On substance, Mogherini can bask in the glow of the Iran nuclear deal, although much of the heavy lifting was done by the US, her predecessor and the three foreign ministers from the UK, France and Germany.

Mogherini has also played a positive role rallying support for refugees from Syria and elsewhere. But she has struggled to play a real role in the current diplomatic game led by Russia surrounding the future of president Assad.

She has also struggled to establish a rapport with Sergei Lavrov, the granite-faced, front man for Vladimir Putin. Old enough to be her father, Lavrov tended to be rather dismissive of Mogherini in their early encounters. But she quickly demonstrated an impressive grasp of the situation in Ukraine and was able to refute some of Lavrov’s statements.

The EU role, however, has been secondary to the Minsk process led by Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.

Mogherini has developed a close relationship with John Kerry and this has translated in a deepening of ties between the bureaucrats of the EEAS and the US State department.

There are regular transatlantic meetings and discussions, often by video, on a wide range of issues from Russia and China to Iran and Syria.

Ultimately, whoever holds the position of High Representative can only act when the 28 member states are in agreement.

Another feature of modern diplomacy is the steady shift of important decisions to the office of prime minister. Mogherini cannot compete with Merkel, but at least she knows how to work with the German chancellor as well as her mentor Matteo Renzi.

Having travelled the globe and established an unrivalled network, Mogherini is now expected to come up with a coherent European security strategy to update the 2003 version.

She is consulting widely on what should be in the strategy. Understanding the complex changes in the international system is the relatively easy part. Deciding on how the EU should respond and what should be the priorities are the difficult parts.

If Mogherini can pull this off she will have secured her place in history.

Fraser Cameron, a former British diplomat and EU advisor, is a Senior Advisor to Cambre Associates


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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