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Italian, Bulgarian Top Contenders For EU's New Foreign-Policy Chief

Catherine Ashton's term ends in November.

BRUSSELS -- European Union heads of states will select a new EU foreign-policy chief on July 16, with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and the current Bulgarian commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, vying for the post.

Mogherini remains the favorite to succeed Catherine Ashton, whose term ends this year, but both Poland and the Baltic states are less than happy about the prospect of having the Italian head the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The 41-year old social democrat is considered to have too little foreign-policy experience, having been appointed to her current position only in February. More importantly, she is also seen as being pro-Russian, making her first foreign visit after Italy took over the EU Presidency in July to Moscow to visit President Vladimir Putin.

That the current left-wing government in Rome has slowed down the process of sanctioning Russia over the situation in Ukraine and pushed for the construction of Gazprom's South Stream pipeline, which circumvents Ukrainian territory, has also jangled some nerves among Kyiv's staunchest allies in the bloc.

The newish member states of Central and Eastern Europe have also argued that at least one of the three top positions in the EU -- the foreign-policy chief, the president of the Eeuropean Commission, and the president of the European Council -- should be an "Easterner."

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was for a long time touted as a possible successor to Ashton, but audio leaks in which he spoke badly of both the United States and the United Kingdom, plus his strong rhetoric on Russia, has made him fall from favor.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, boosted by an excellent result in the recent European elections, has lobbied hard for a top post for Italy and for Mogherini, despite the charge that she is a foreign-policy neophyte.

Having been involved in left-wing youth politics for a long time, she was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2008 and reelected in 2013. She has served as a member of her country's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and chaired its delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO. She is also a fellow of the German Marshall Fund for the United States.

Consensus Decision

The decision has to be made by consensus but due to the horse-trading for other top EU posts, some of the big member states could give Mogherini the green light in the end.

France's socialist President Francois Hollande would back a fellow left-winger and is also hoping to get support from Rome when it comes to securing the important economic and monetary affairs commissioner post for his candidate.

The United Kingdom is not keen on the Italian but after opposing Jean-Claude Juncker as commission president, London hopes to mend fences in order to secure both a top portfolio and more sympathy from other EU member states when it comes to the possible future renegotiation of Britain's EU membership.

Germany is not likely to block Mogherini's nomination and even Poland can be won over if the next EU energy commissioner is Polish.

If Georgieva gets the post, she would become the first person in a top position at the EU to come from the former Warsaw Pact countries who joined the European club in 2004 and 2007.

The 60-year-old has been the EU commissioner responsible for international cooperation, humanitarian aid, and crisis response since 2010 and has coordinated Brussels' action in disaster-stricken areas such as flood-hit Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia earlier this year and in Pakistan after the floods in 2010.

Having started off as an environmental economist responsible for Europe and Central Asia for the World Bank in 1993, she worked herself up to be in charge of the Washington-based institution's environmental strategy and was then named the bank's director and resident representative in Russia, based in Moscow from 2004 to 2007.

Before leaving for Brussels, she had climbed all the way up to the position of vice president.

She was initially not the first choice to become Bulgaria's EU commissioner, but when the country's foreign minister, Rumiana Jeleva, was felled by the European Parliament for financial irregularities and questionable competence, the center-right GERB party, which was in power at the time, called on Georgieva for commissioner to avoid further humiliation.

Even though she is associated with GERB, she is considered to be more of a neutral technocrat than a political animal.

The EU foreign-policy chief-designate will be grilled by the European Parliament later in the autumn before taking up the position for an initial period of five years starting in November.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.