Is Federica Mogherini to make a real difference?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jolyon Howorth
Jolyon Howorth

To address the question of whether Federica Mogherini can shape a smarter foreign and security policy for the EU than Catherine Ashton did, the answer, assuming there is one, must come in several parts.

The first concerns the nature of the position itself. When Ashton was appointed EU High Representative (HR) in 2009, many commentators, reacting to the widespread feeling that several other higher-profile candidates would have been preferable, argued that the personality of the incumbent was irrelevant because all decision-making power lies in the hands of the member states. Whoever is in post, it was argued, will simply have to toe whatever line member states collectively think appropriate or desirable. This line of reasoning has also greeted the appointment of Mogherini, though it is at best a half-truth, as most member states are actually looking for guidance in defining and promoting their interests. Institutionally, the HR indeed has to work within clear political constraints. But she also enjoys a considerable margin of manoeuvre and, given creativity and imagination, can succeed in influencing, if not actually setting, the agenda to a meaningful extent. Commentators agree that Javier Solana, with far fewer resources than Ashton, succeeded far better in making a real difference.

As a result of Ashton’s tenure, there are those who suggest that the position of HR has been weakened or even undermined – precisely because of her relative failure to deliver on the undoubtedly exaggerated expectations of the security community. But that view overlooks the extent to which the new post-holder has succeeded in avoiding the many early mistakes for which Ashton was constantly pilloried. It also ignores the new geopolitical context in which Mogherini is operating, with the specific remit given to the HR by the December 2013 Council. That remit confers on the new HR a clear mandate to develop, not a new institution as in the case of Ashton (the EEAS), but a new strategy and new policy preferences for the EU as a whole.

A smart policy is one that is clear, appropriate to the objective being pursued and achievable

The second issue is the respective candidates’ qualifications for the job. Here, Mogherini scores heavily, with her previous experience as Italian Foreign Minister and Secretary of the Italian Parliament’s Defence Committee. Whereas Ashton had to start from scratch and learn on the job, Mogherini hit the road running. During her October 2014 audition hearings before the European Parliament, all observers were as impressed by her solid mastery of the issues as they had been disconcerted five years earlier by Ashton’s apparent amateurishness. Mogherini is also solidly advised and assisted by her chef de cabinet, Stefano Manservisi, one of Italy’s most distinguished European officials. Whereas Ashton appeared constrained by ambivalent signals from the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, Mogherini benefits from the enthusiastic Euro-credentials of Matteo Renzi.

The third issue is the political content of the word “smart” as applied to European foreign policy. A smart policy is one that is clear, appropriate to the objective being pursued and achievable. Ashton put more time and effort into the Middle East than any other geographical area. But it was not clear what she hoped to achieve, and her actual achievements were extremely modest. Her main diplomatic successes – Kosovo and Iran – stemmed from her personal human qualities rather than from diplomatic finesse. Whereas Ashton toed the British line of ambivalence towards the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and appeared to consider it with indifference, expressing a clear preference for NATO, Mogherini strongly believes in and attaches genuine importance to European defence and security co-operation, which she perceives as necessarily operating in harmony with NATO.

It is in the area of the respective post-holders’ main priority remits that the biggest difference can be detected. Ashton was charged with creating the EEAS and she is rightly credited with achieving this – and within a year of taking office. Yet the mid-term reviews of the EEAS were generally critical, and in her own observations of the service, she seemed far more concerned about its internal workings than about its diplomatic reach or objectives. Mogherini has been charged with developing an EU “grand strategy”. The Council remit specifically asked her to “assess the impact of changes in the global environment” and to report to the Council on “challenges and opportunities” for the EU arising from that shifting global context. The way she has gone about this offers considerable reason for optimism. The most important element is that she is asking the correct questions. Not, ‘how do we export our values to the Southern and Eastern neighbourhoods?’ But, ‘what can the EU realistically hope to achieve in these neighbourhoods given the massive changes they have recently undergone?’

The strategic review process will not be rushed. In the first phase, it has sought to understand shifts in the global environment, assess internal changes within the Union and their foreign policy implications, and review EU foreign policy instruments across the board (CSDP, cyber, energy, trade, development, counter-terrorism). In a second phase, starting immediately after the June Council, it will address the real questions required behind a genuine strategy: what are the EU’s interests, what are its realistic goals and how does it link these to appropriate means?

Mogherini has established a clear set of priorities, has developed a good working relationship with the policy community, with national and European officials and above all with the media. Whereas Ashton, for the overwhelming majority of commentators, got off to a decidedly rocky start, Mogherini’s performance to date has been virtually flawless. Whether this eventually delivers a “smarter” policy than that of her predecessor, of course, is largely in her own hands.

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