Mogherini as EU High Representative: How can she redefine the role?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Federica Mogherini [CTBTO/Flickr]

When Federica Mogherini moves into her new office in the European Commission, she will find a full diary on her desk. During her hearing at the European Parliament in the beginning of October, she could already get a first glimpse of her agenda as EU foreign policy chief, write Niklas Helwig and Carolin Rüger.

Dr Niklas Helwig, Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki. Dr Carolin Rüger, Institute for Political Science and Sociology, University of Würzburg.

The questions spanned the whole spectrum of international politics: the advance of ISIS, crisis diplomacy in the Ukraine conflict, nuclear talks with Iran, TTIP negotiations with the US, the ever-smouldering Middle East conflict, the EU’s relations with NATO, India, China, Latin America, and the diminished strategic partner, Russia.

However, the three hour hearing was not only about world affairs. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy does not only need diplomatic skills on the international stage, but has to master the art of engaging with EU structures, and member states.

Therefore, expectations for Mogherini are high. She now has the opportunity to set priorities and redefine her role. A key point will be to go beyond mere management of EU foreign policy, and develop a strategic leadership together with the member states. But will that be possible?

Learning from Lady Ashton?

Reviewing the term of her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, gives some indication on how to redefine the complex and difficult job description of High Representative of the Union. Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, Ashton’s term was inevitably marked by the conflict-ridden and resource-consuming set-up of the new structures around the European External Action Service (EEAS). Without a doubt, the service can be seen as Ashton’s legacy. The institutional focus will be less pronounced with Mogherini at the helm. Instead, she will be able to draw on the new foreign policy infrastructure and to concentrate on external challenges from the very first day in office.

Still, Mogherini will not be able to avoid dealing with the internal organisation of EU foreign policy. She has already announced that she will move her office to the Berlaymont building of the Commission, and will make stronger use of her ‘Commission hat’. The new structures of the Juncker Commission provide beneficial conditions for this endeavour. As Vice-President, Mogherini will lead the External Action cluster and coordinate those seven Commissioners whose portfolios are particularly relevant for EU external relations, such as trade, humanitarian aid and crisis management, neighbourhood policy and enlargement. The restructured administration provides Mogherini with the opportunity to revive the moribund Relex group of Commissioners.

Returning to the core idea of the Lisbon Treaty, a closer political coordination of the comprehensive foreign policy toolkit of the EU is certainly a step to be welcomed. Yet, by focusing on the Commission, Mogherini risks neglecting cooperation with other EU actors, especially with the EEAS and the President of the European Council. The EEAS will more and more develop as the backbone of a common EU foreign policy, given its international network of EU embassies and its Brussels-based planning staff. As the new European Council President, Donald Tusk can be of great help in the quest to convince heads of state or government of closer joint foreign policymaking.

Co-leadership with the member states

Even though it is likely that institutional turf wars will decrease in comparison to Ashton’s term, the key challenge for the High Representatives will remain the same: ever since the establishment of the post in 1999, relations with the member states have been pivotal in evaluating the High Representative and the effectiveness of this position. The Lisbon upgrade to version “High Representative 2.0” rather amplified the dilemma, as many observers expected that the revamped position came with a closer integration of EU external action. But also after Lisbon, the High Representative should not be confused with a foreign minister able to ‘make’ foreign policy. Especially on key issues of foreign and security policy, member states keep pulling the strings.

The leadership role expected from the EU foreign policy chief is constrained by member states’ national reflexes. The strategic debate on the future course of the EU as a global actor – a tricky subject – was not only avoided by Ashton, but also by Britain, France and Germany, and thus by the only ones that are able to give momentum to Europe’s foreign policy. In Ashton’s defence, member states – not least due to the sovereign debt crisis – had little interest in foreign policy matters in recent years, let alone were eager to start a wider strategic reflection process. Mogherini, who wants to engage in this long overdue review exercise, will have to sound out the possibilities and limits of a collective and strategic blueprint. Her forthcoming tour through all 28 capitals gives hope that Mogherini will proactively pursue her extremely difficult role as a co-leader of EU foreign policy.

A balancing act

Even though Mogherini’s first steps as High Representative have received much more favourable feedback compared to the inauguration of her predecessor, she will not be saved from criticism. The delicate nature of her office requires a balancing act, not just between the different dimensions of EU foreign policy, but also between the European level and the sphere of the member states.

A Brussels bon mot gets straight to the point: “A double-hatted High Representative can soon become double-hated.” Catherine Ashton can tell us a thing or two about that. It will be up to the new incumbent to develop a foundation for common action with the member states, especially with the ‘big three’, and to make the case for the added value of joint European action. Mogherini’s communication skills, which she already displayed during her hearing in the European Parliament, can be of help. In recent years, EU foreign policy was too often sold below value. One thing is for sure: Faced with the crisis belt currently surrounding the EU, there will be no shortage of occasions that put the new incumbent to the test.


A detailed analysis of Ashton’s term will be published in the December issue of The International Spectator: In Search of a Role for the High Representative: The Legacy of Catherine Ashton.



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