Paradoxically it was the EU’s closest partner, the United States, that has done most to damage Federica Mogherini’s legacy as High Representative with a full-scale assault on the EU’s commitment to multilateralism, writes Fraser Cameron.
Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre and a senior advisor with the European Policy Centre.
With only a few months left in office, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has started talking about her legacy. Paradoxically it was the EU’s closest partner, the United States that has done most to damage her legacy with a full-scale assault on the EU’s commitment to multilateralism.
The Iran nuclear deal, touted by Mogherini as the crown jewel of EU diplomacy, was torpedoed soon after Donald Trump moved into the White House and is now on life support.
As soon as Trump took office, he cast doubt on NATO, pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accords and slapped tariffs on European steel. In these circumstances it was tough for Mogherini to develop any common rapport with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s beleaguered first secretary of state. And it is clear she and Mike Pompeo inhabit totally different planets.
Mogherini also took office in a very difficult international environment. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the Donbass put relations with Moscow into the freezer. The Arab spring had failed to bring democracy to a key part of the EU’s neighbourhood and the migration crisis was to both dominate and poison European politics for much of her tenure. And losing the EU’s largest diplomatic and military power as a result of Brexit did not help.
This left little time to deal with other strategic partners including China, India and Japan. Turkey has also been neglected while the EU has been largely absent from the Syria crisis. In the Western Balkans, also mentioned by Mogherini as part of her legacy, she only played a bit part in resolving the Macedonia name issue while the long-standing dispute between Serbia and Kosovo remains open. Elsewhere, even a long awaited strategic partnership with ASEAN has not materialised.
In another twist, it was Mogherini’s patron, Matteo Renzi, who called her tenure as High Representative a failure describing her impact on European foreign policy ‘as close to zero on almost all the most important dossiers.’
But it would be wrong to heap all the blame on Mogherini. She has had little support from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, neither much interested in foreign policy. Mogherini also suffered when the Progressive Democrats lost power in Italy. She was never at ease with the populist government in Rome. And as a socialist, she was also in a minority in the College.
The job description (she has at least three hats) calls for a superhuman who does not sleep and is content to spend half their life on a plane. But she has rarely used her power of initiative under the Lisbon treaty and the EEAS, while appreciated by some partners as a single and constant interlocutor still struggles to make an impact in many parts of the world, including among the larger Member States’ foreign services.
The constant issuing of statements recounting facts on this or that or simply listing who she has met without any policy output has eroded credibility. Many EEAS officials moan that the institution is just a briefing machine with little influence on policy making. Others complain about the lack of an esprit de corps pointing out that Mogherini rarely takes time to visit her troops.
Traveling non stop
The former Italian foreign minister was demonstrably better qualified than Cathy Ashton to head the EEAS. A media-friendly, multilingual, policy wonk with G7 ministerial experience, she brought boundless energy to the job. Last summer she visited Singapore, Seoul, Wellington and Sydney in just five days, meeting more than a dozen foreign ministers.
But the constant travelling is one of the problems. The High Rep has no official deputy and thus has to spread herself thinly. She is also a Vice President of the Commission and head of the European Defence Agency, two posts that many hoped would lead to more coherence, continuity and visibility in EU foreign policy. The record is mixed to put it mildly.
The travelling has also meant that she has little time to manage the EEAS or prioritise dossiers. Critics say that basic questions such as a decent archive system, having dedicated foreign policy media briefings as most foreign ministries have, an international law department, have not been addressed. There is no official historian and the rotation system has also meant that there is little continuity and much of the knowledge and expertise of the former Commission and Council staff has been lost. Many EU ambassadors have two postings and then return to their national ministries. Some of the Member States diplomats have never served in Brussels and are meant to represent the institutions abroad.
Coordination and cooperation with the Commission which has most of the essential tools (money, technical assistance, etc) is better than during the previous Commission and she has worked reasonably well with Johannes Hahn in the neighbourhood. But her much hyped Global Strategy described by one former Council official as ‘forty pages of nice prose but avoiding all the difficult questions’ has sunk without trace.
To be fair, it is no easy task trying to get 28 foreign ministers, all vying for a share of the limelight, to agree a common line. This has been particularly acute with regard to China which is adept at divide and rule. Last year, as Hungary abstained, just 27 ambassadors in Beijing issued a report critical of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Cyprus, a preferred destination for Russian oligarchs and their riches, has blocked a tough approach to Russia. Others have blocked policy initiatives because of references to migration. Agreeing a common line on Venzuela was painfully slow.
There have been some successes. She laid the groundwork for a closer military cooperation among Member States through PESCO and secured a commitment for future defence funding. This may actually be her lasting legacy. She has helped ensure that the EU has maintained limited sanctions on Russia ever since its invasion of Crimea in 2014. And she has preserved something from the Iran deal by the agreement on a payments mechanism for SMEs to continue trading with Iran.
Mogherini has also kept the EU together, again against US pressure, on the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestine dispute. Reflecting her personal interest in the wider Arab world, she successfully pushed for the first ever EU-Arab League summit in Egypt in late February. And she has taken more of an interest in Africa than her predecessors. Indeed her migration compacts with a number of African countries could pave the way for greater engagement with the continent in the next Commission.
But the struggle to adopt joint statements on China, Venezuela and the INF Treaty has prompted renewed calls for the EU to use a treaty provision allowing some foreign policy decisions to be made by a qualified majority. Mogherini has been reluctant to go down this path preferring to try and get all member states on board. But given the rapidity of world events it is questionable whether the EU can wait until the slowest is on board, or allow one member state to block the wishes of 27 others.
There are also those who suggest it was a mistake to allow the High Rep to chair the foreign affairs council. Although it may have helped a little with continuity it has lessened the buy in of foreign ministers. It is equally clear that the next Commission must tackle the question of a deputy or deputies to the High Rep.
What will Mogherini do now? Her patron in Rome, Matteo Renzi, has departed the political scene and the Democratic Party at present does not see her reviving their fortunes. She has rejected standing for the European Parliament. An international job would suit her well, otherwise she can surely take the pick of prestigious universities regardless of her tarnished legacy.