Filmmaker: EU’s Mogherini has to juggle tough job and fighting sexism, misogyny

Federica Mogherini [European Commission]

Filmmaker Annalisa Piras has completed a new documentary in which she followed for more than a year the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and her efforts to shape the EU’s foreign policy and devise a response to the migrant crisis.

Annalisa Piras is a filmmaker for Springshot Productions. “Europe at Sea” will premiere on Arte on 7 November.

Piras was interviewed by EURACTIV’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.

Europe at Sea? I sense a note of pessimism in the title of your new documentary. Is Europe really all at sea?

In the title, there is both a note of pessimism and a note of hope – metaphorically and physically. When you are at sea a lot of different things can happen. The weather can change suddenly, you can get lost, and it is dangerous. But according to the skills of your crew you can also weather the storm and reach a safe harbour. And what is crucial is how the crew works together, not any one brilliant single individual.

The title therefore captures the sense of danger and self-doubt that the majority of Europeans today feel faced by the new international insecurity. But also the hope that Europeans can wake up to the idea that they are on the same boat.

At the same time, the title refers also to the filming we did while embedded in EUNAVFOR Med, aka Operation Sophia, the first ever joint EU naval mission in the Southern Central Mediterranean, fighting human trafficking and arms smuggling.

Europe in the Med 5 years ago looked like it had lost its moral compass.

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But Operation Sophia, which is an evolving response to a very complex phenomenon, marked a historic shift. Most of the media coverage on it focused on whether or not it represented a pull factor for migrants or on the moral conundrums of training the Libyan coast guard. But in my view the key aspect of it is that it represents an innovative, evolving example of how 27 European countries can come together, joining all their forces, civilian and military, to face common challenges.

There are of course improvements that can be made to Operation Sophia, and we should acknowledge this, without forgetting that it is a significant step towards awareness that no single European country alone can cope with the magnitude of the challenges on their doorsteps today.

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Two years in the making, what was the most challenging part of making this documentary?

It was very difficult as I was swimming against the current. Looking at how the EU can help Europeans find common security solutions is not very fashionable. The default attitude seems to be always to attack and criticise whatever the EU does, often misrepresenting it or distorting it. There is a lot of confusion and disinformation. And this is a big problem. I found no evidence that you can tackle transnational issues, be migration, terrorism, international insecurity, climate change or cyberwarfare, better at a national level than in cooperation with your neighbours.

So the film is an attempt to provoke a debate on what can be done better at the EU level, rather than constantly vilifying any EU initiative, even when it is finally taking actions, and going in the right direction.

Another major challenge was the constantly moving targets of the past two years in geopolitics. “Europe At Sea” closely observed Federica Mogherini, the head of EU foreign and security policy, while she faced these very complex, international, multifaceted developments and crises. She probably has the second most difficult job in the world after the UN Secretary General. It is very difficult to represent 28 countries with very different views of what is in their common interest in this fast-changing global environment.

It was also very difficult to try to put into a 60 minute film only the elements which would help a wide TV audience understand the big picture. Editing was excruciating, and we left on the cutting room floor extraordinary material for at least another two films…

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For over a year you followed Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, while she was devising, launching and implementing the EU Global Strategy. Do you feel that the EU, irrespective of its national divisions, has a vision to truly become the master of its own destiny on the foreign stage and even attempt to become a  shaper of the global order?

The vision, however imperfect, is now there. Mogherini’s EU Global Strategy is the first attempt in 14 years to have a shared reflection on what role we want to have as Europeans in the world. The last one, in 2003, was by authored by one of her predecessors, Xavier Solana, but the world has transformed since then.

We followed how the strategy was conceived, drawing from lessons learned in all the EU capitals, universities, think-thanks, and NGOS. It was a real eye-opener. The EUGS contains a clear vision and many ground-breaking ideas. It draws on the most advanced research available today. It was signed off, line by line, by all EU governments. It should be discussed and debated in every EU nation as it concerns one of the questions EU citizens are more worried about: security. The main question I am left with is: why we are not talking more about it?

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In the movie, you film Mogherini saying that Europeans have to take responsibility for their own defence and that “we can be strong and human” at the same time. For centuries, it has been otherwise. Strength has always come with all but humanity. Do you have the feeling that she is perceiving strength in a different way? What do you think she means by ‘strong’?

I believe that she is referring to the need for a massive cultural shift in Europe. The EU Global Strategy is a breakthrough in the sense that it is trying to establish an alternative, comprehensive approach to conflicts and crisis. The security environment has changed dramatically. We need to change our paradigms for the world we live in. The new challenges we face are interconnected and travel across borders. Terrorism, cyberwarfare, climate change, and migration are interconnected problems that defy the old distinction between external and internal threats.

When it comes to migration specifically, I understood the intersection of all these aspects when I went to film the EU civilian mission in Niger, the poorest country in the world, and the root of huge migration flows into Europe. You cannot really understand migration if you don’t understand the security issues in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the media debate rarely connects the two.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently warned that our failure to stabilise the Sahel region could make us responsible for humanitarian disasters of unimaginable proportions. In a report to the UN Security Council he said that “the Sahel region is now trapped in a vicious cycle in which poor political and security governance, combined with chronic poverty and the effects of climate change, has contributed to the spread of insecurity.” The population is also skyrocketing in that region; its 900 million people are expected to double in the next 50 years.

Being strong and human means having the courage and strength to talk honestly about what needs to be done to tackle these long-term challenges. We need new paradigms. Like the concept of “human security”, explained in the film by professor Mary Kaldor, one of the world’s leading authorities on new wars. The challenge is enormous.

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Complex and accelerated challenges like migration, terrorism, cyberwarfare, nuclear threats are a nightmare for any leader today. Do you think Mogherini has what is needed to shape and adapt the EU defence and security to the new context? What kind of arms does she uses?

I think she is a great asset for Europe. Energetic, with a low-key, not bombastic style, she is very skilled at mastering her dossiers and has a clear, unflinching vision. In my mind she belongs to a new generation of EU leaders, which we have been seeking for decades.

However there is a limit to what anyone can achieve in her role, without the full support of the 28 member states. And regrettably the old double game of EU national leaders saying one thing in Brussels and then doing the contrary when at home is still on. The seriousness of the challenges though is too big to keep gambling on the false dichotomy between national and collective interests.

What do you think are Mogherini worst enemies? And which her allies? (I say Mogherini’s not the EU)

Her enemies are first and foremost all those in the EU national establishments who still believe that there is today any point in pursuing a narrow minded, short term national agenda on the great issues facing Europe. Populist and nationalists who promise false quick fixes.

But there are many other enemies. Some are in-built in the current EU institutional set-up. Does it make sense to have three people talking at the same time on behalf of Europe in the world? At present we have the President of the Commission, the President of the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It’s a mess.

Last but not least, one big enemy of Federica is sexism. Following her I have encountered an extraordinary amount of misogyny. I was shocked. How can we make any progress in gender equality when we have a competent woman in a position of leadership who is criticized for not looking like a statesman?

Mogherini’s strongest allies seem to be Chancellor Merkel and President Macron. They believe in the vision of a reenergised Europe acting together in the world. But they must make it happen. President Macron has yet to prove that his pro-European rhetoric is always backed by substance.

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How innovative is the EU Global strategy?

It is ground-breaking, yet simple. In a nutshell it looks at the mid-term challenges facing us and defines ways to combine all our forces, having learned from Europe’s past mistakes. But implementing it involves a radical change in national attitudes. And nobody likes that.

We ignore this strategy at our own peril. Failing to tackle our common security challenges collectively will influence the way we live for decades to come. On anti-terrorism for instance the difference between more EU cooperation and less means saving lives.

You say people hardly understand this strategy. Why do you think this is the case?

To understand the Global Strategy you need to have a basic understanding of the complexity and interconnection of our fast changing world. This demands almost a pedagogic effort from the media and the institutions in explaining why yesterday’s simple answers will not do today. This is not happening.

On the top of that, the media naturally tend to refer to national political leaders, who court short-term easy national solutions rather than difficult, long-term collective ones. Even though it is clear that the former have repeatedly failed.

True, the EU Global Strategy might not be exactly sexy, but it is surprising to see how little coverage it has received given its potential to offer new solutions.

You say you wanted to take the viewers out of their comfort zone. What do you mean by that?

What we see today in Europe is that most people have not yet started to grasp the enormity and the speed at which the world is transforming and how this is affecting them. The new geopolitical landscape, terrorism, migration, cyber insecurity, and climate change are here to stay. The lack of awareness leads people to fall for old paradigms that do not apply anymore. And consequently, people get polarised on opposite, sometimes extreme sides that do not help to find a solution. On the migration phenomenon for instance, people often fall for useless binary choices “pro” or “anti”. The reality is not black and white, but many shades of grey – discovering that might be upsetting. But a documentary which is not thought-provoking is not worth much.

Your first documentary was The Great European Disaster Movie, now comes Europe at Sea. Are you already thinking of the next one? What other awakening stories on the EU do we need to put on screen?

I want to look at what went wrong in Europe with gender equality – a foundational value of the EU. In Europe we have built the most equal societies in the world. We know as a fact that societies in which women enjoy equal rights as men do better for everybody. Yet since 2005 progress has stalled and in some EU countries it has gone in reverse gear. Why is that? As the mother of two girls, I feel the huge responsibility of my generation to understand what went wrong there and what we can do about it.

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