High Representative, High Expectations

What to Expect from the EU's New Foreign Policy Chief

Newly elected European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini in Brussels, August 30, 2014.
Newly elected European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini in Brussels, August 30, 2014. (Yves Herman / Courtesy Reuters)

Five years pass so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that EU leaders were emerging from an unseemly and apparently ad hoc appointment process to announce that Catherine Ashton, a member of the British House of Lords and a recently appointed European trade commissioner, would be the first-ever high representative for foreign affairs and security policy -- a sort of EU foreign minister. One existential currency crisis and two Russian invasions of Ukraine later, the EU is picking her successor.

With the passage of time and the rush of events, the stakes have become much higher. Yet the EU continues to select its leaders as if its postmodern continental paradise were not under siege from the south, because of the disintegration of the Arab world, and to the east, thanks to Russian aggression. Just like last time, the selection of the new high representative, Federica Mogherini, was undignified, full of haggling, and more focused on her gender, party affiliation, and nationality than on her actual qualifications for the job. And those are few: Mogherini emerged from obscurity just a few months ago to become Italy’s foreign minister.

Critics look at Mogherini’s lack of experience and assume that the EU’s underperformance in foreign policy will continue. This is a real possibility, and with crises brewing to Europe’s east and south, this is a particularly bad moment for the EU to descend into a bout of internal squabbling. But Mogherini can transcend the process that selected her and be the foreign policy representative the EU needs if she learns a few lessons from the recent past.

Back in 2009, pundits were filled with hope about the new EU foreign policy chief. The post was new and newly empowered to set up a diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS). Against this backdrop, the choice of Ashton, an unknown British politician with no foreign policy experience, came as a cold shower. Her appointment reinforced the perception that the EU leaders’ stated resolve to raise the union’s foreign policy profile was rhetorical rather than real.

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