The EU’s heads of government will meet in Brussels on Saturday to select two of the bloc’s leading office-holders for the next five years. In June they agreed that Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister, would head the European Commission, the EU’s top body. Now they must decide on the union’s other big jobs.
It is still unclear who will be president of the European Council, the union’s principal figurehead. But the growing consensus is that Federica Mogherini, Italy’s foreign minister, is to be the next high representative on foreign affairs.
The EU high representative role ought to be one of the most important in the Brussels machine. In areas such as trade and the single market, the EU operates with some coherence as a bloc. But on foreign policy – whether it be dealing with Russia, China or the Middle East – the big member states frequently like to act alone. A strong high representative can help to smoothe differences between national governments. He or she must also lead the EU’s External Action Service – an ambitious attempt to give the bloc a global diplomatic machine that has not lived up to its promise.
EU heads of government are notorious for making last-minute changes to appointments. But if the job does indeed go to Ms Mogherini this would be disappointing. At a time of significant international tension, the EU could have opted for an established big hitter for the post such as Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt or his Dutch counterpart Frans Timmermans. By contrast, Ms Mogherini was little known before she became Italy’s foreign minister six months ago. If chosen, it would be for the same reasons that Britain’s Catherine Ashton got the job five years ago. It would be the result of an elaborate bargain among member states in which every box is ticked – except the one marked “experience”.
With President Vladimir Putin continuing to threaten Ukraine, one area where Ms Mogherini would cause concern is her stance on Russia. The Italian corporate world – most notably in areas such as energy – remains closely linked to Russia. And in her brief stint as a foreign minister, Ms Mogherini has reflected Italy’s desire to appease rather than confront the Kremlin. We should not exaggerate the problem this would present. Europe’s policy towards Russia will continue to be dominated by Germany’s Angela Merkel. But this is no time for any top EU official to be seen as soft on Moscow.
Managing day-to-day diplomacy would not be the only challenge for the next high representative. Perhaps the most important task will be to work with the rest of the commission to help the EU play a more strategic role, one that reflects the bloc’s weight as a global economic power. Here, the EU has failed badly over the past five years – most notably when it comes to the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aims to help bring political and economic stability to more than a dozen states in Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe.
The next high representative must make a bigger effort to join up EU policy in areas such as aid, trade, migration and diplomacy. Helping to stabilise states such as Libya and Mali – and dealing with the problem of migration across the Mediterranean – should be much higher up the EU’s international priorities.
Whoever gets the EU foreign policy job – whether it be Ms Mogherini or someone else – will need time to get to grips with the role. It would be wrong to prejudge any candidate, given that some states, like the UK, are sending relative unknowns to Brussels. But what is not in doubt is that Europe needs a strong foreign policy chief – one who can help give the EU a stronger voice in the world.