Federica Mogherini, the 41-year-old Italian minister for foreign affairs, will lead the EU’s foreign policy for the next five years.
European heads of state and government elected Mogherini on Saturday (30 August), as the new High Representative for foreign and security policy, the de facto foreign affairs minister for the EU.
Just last month, EU leaders failed to agree on her candidacy. The Baltic states and Poland saw her as inexperienced and too soft on Russia. Mogherini has also only been Italy's foreign minister since February.
At the time, Italian commentators rebuffed the criticism. Franco Venturini, in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, wrote that the accusations were unfounded. “After all, Angela Merkel talks regularly with Vladimir Putin and nobody says anything. Mogherini hasn’t done anything different than Mrs Merkel,” he said.
Some leaders reproached Mogherini for having said, after talks in the Kremlin on 9 July, that Italy was ready to support for the energy dialogue between Russia and the European Union in order to promote the implementation of the South Stream gas pipeline project.
The construction of the Russia-sponsored South Stream gas pipeline, intended to pump Russian natural gas directly to Europe and bypass countries such as Ukraine, ran into a number of hurdles as the European Commission attempted to block the project’s implementation over Russia’s stance on Ukraine.
Even though some will continue to say that at a time when Russia is flexing its muscle, Europe needed to select someone with a proven track record of understanding and meeting Russia’s challenge, it is true that the foreign policy chief will not make EU policy. Individual member states, especially Germany, will continue to play a leading role.
“But appointing the right person could serve the purpose of rallying the member states, pressuring them to stick to their previous declarations and being a powerful voice for Europe’s values and its interests in a peaceful and free continent,” said analyst Thomas Wright from Brookings.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle, MEP Elmar Brok, chairman of the Committee on Foreign affairs, said that the EU lacked a unified foreign policy strategy.
“How can we, for example, find a lasting solution to the Ukraine question if we, in a thorough sense, have no common Russia strategy? We don't know how we should deal with dictators and Islamist movements in the Islamic and Arab worlds. In addition to pressing questions such as weapons supplies to the Kurds and supporting the Ukrainians in their negotiations with Russia, I believe the informal gathering of foreign ministers should develop a strategy on how we can deal with the challenges in our neighbourhood,” he said.
Italian diplomatic sources said Mogherini could surprise a few of her detractors and her dedication would be an asset.
In Brussels, some stressed that some member states had opposed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, but the Luxembourgish former prime minister was nonetheless selected for the post.
Who is Mogherini exactly?
At 41, she is just two years older than Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and is among the youngest politicians in his ruling Partito Democractico.
One of a group of young women in Renzi's cabinet, Mogherini is possibly the closest to the premier. Before becoming Italy’s foreign minister six month ago, she was little known, but attracted international attention as she is only the third woman in Italy to serve in that role, after Emma Bonino and Susanna Agnelli, both seasoned politicians with long careers and much experience.
Proficient in English and French, Mogherini graduated from Rome's Sapienza University with a degree in political science and a thesis on Islamic politics that she completed during studies in Aix of Provence (France), where she spent some time as an Erasmus student.
She was elected to parliament for the first time in 2008, joining the lower house committee on foreign affairs. In her climb up the party ladder, Mogherini held a series of foreign policy positions until claiming the group's top foreign policy job last year.
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.
Described as a "typical centre-left politician of her generation", Mogherini is believed to have transitioned from the radical left, campaigning against racism, xenophobia and apartheid in the 1990s, to the mainstream of today.
Speaking at a press conference after her nomination, Mogherini said she hoped to combine the energy of the new generation of European leaders she represents with the long, solid Italian tradition of working through dialogue and inclusiveness to bring about timely decisions needed in these challenging times.
“If we point a compass in Brussels and go around it, it is all our neighbourhood that is suffering from crisis and war,” she said, stressing she was up to the task “to work in the interest of all member states, each and everyone, and all European citizens, each and everyone" to come up with the right actions and solutions.