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News Analysis: Why EU Is Likely To Pick Newbie To Succeed Ashton

  • Rikard Jozwiak

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini (left) is widely tipped to replace Catherinie Ashton (right) as the EU's foreign policy chief. (file photo)

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini (left) is widely tipped to replace Catherinie Ashton (right) as the EU's foreign policy chief. (file photo)

The prospect of Federica Mogherini becoming the European Union's foreign-policy chief has been controversial from the start.

Prior to becoming Italy's foreign minister this year, she had scant diplomatic experience. Moreover, at a time when relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War, the 41-year-old Mogherini is viewed by many, particularly in Eastern Europe, as being soft on Moscow.

Critics said her appointment would only reinforce the notion that the EU's foreign policy is timid and risk-averse.

Nevertheless, Mogherini is widely expected to get the post when EU diplomats meet this weekend.

So how did this happen?

It is primarily the result of the arcane, unwritten rules and informal horse trading that largely govern top EU appointments.

First, Germany and France have indicated that, this year, the top foreign-policy job should go to a socialist. Moreover, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker badly needs more women on his team to win the approval of the European Parliament.

Complicated Jigsaw

The pool of likely candidates for the post was further narrowed by the EU's complex regional dynamics.

Juncker is a Luxembourger and the next EU Council president should be someone from the north or the east. This leaves the union's southern countries demanding the final high-ranking job.

So, the foreign-policy chief needs to be a socialist woman from a southern country.

And riding high on a strong showing by his party in elections to the European Parliament, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has also lobbied hard for Mogherini. Italy holding the EU's rotating presidency gives Renzi additional clout to push her candidacy.

The two other front-runners, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and the Bulgarian humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, have much more impressive resumes. But neither fits the EU's complicated jigsaw puzzle as well as Mogherini.

She was widely expected to get the job back in July, but her candidacy was scuttled by Poland and Lithuania, who argued that she was too soft on Russia during the crisis in Ukraine.

"I will not support a person who is pro-Kremlin," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said at that meeting.

Perceived Coziness

The fact that Mogherini's first foreign trip since Italy took over the EU presidency in July was to Moscow to see Vladimir Putin exacerbated the issue.

There were also suspicions about the perceived coziness between Italy's left-wing government and Russia.

Rome has also not hidden its support for Gazprom's South Stream pipeline -- which would transfer Russian natural gas to Europe, circumventing Ukraine, and which the Italian energy giant Eni has invested heavily in.

Diplomats have also accused Italy of watering down EU Council texts critical of Russia throughout the crisis in Ukraine and slowing down sanctions against Moscow.

There were also fears among the EU's eastern states that a foreign-policy chief from the south would be more interested in promoting the EU in North Africa and the Middle East than engaging with eastern partners.

What in the end seems to have won the eastern EU member states over is the promise of good policy portfolios for their national candidates in the next EU Commission -- or even the post of president of the European Council.

Italy has also become more cooperative on punishing Russia -- both within the framework of the EU and the Group of Seven (G7) group of leading industrialized nations -- after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Finally, there also seems to be an understanding that the foreign-policy chief will still operate in the shadows of the foreign ministers of big member states

Much like Ashton, Mogherini is not only a neophyte on the international scene, but also far from a household name in her own country.

Prior to being named foreign minister in February, she was a rank-and-file member of the Italian parliament since 2008. Her foreign-policy experience consists of stints representing her country in the parliamentary assemblies of both NATO and the Council of Europe and as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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