High Representative, High Expectations

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.

Although understandable, both the high expectations and the subsequent disappointment were misplaced. Even a high representative with an impeccable résumé would not have turned the EU into a foreign policy juggernaut. After all, the EU high representative is not a U.S. secretary of state with plenty of space to set U.S. foreign policy, but a bureaucrat operating within the much narrower limits of intergovernmental decision-making. In the EU, it is the member states — not Brussels — that make decisions on the most consequential issues of foreign policy.

Ashton has operated well within this limited sphere and carefully picked her issues. She has understood that the role of the high representative must change depending on the degree of agreement among the states. When there is a strong consensus, the high representative’s role most closely resembles that of a normal foreign minister — he or she has great leeway to devise and implement policies. The 2013 normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is a good case in point: there was sufficient consensus among member states that Ashton was able to spearhead an agreement between the two countries, for which she deservedly earned credit.

If there is a lack of consensus but also an imbalance of interest among member states, ad hoc groups of interested member states tend to take the initiative — as did the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in 2003 on Iran’s nuclear program and Poland and Lithuania during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The high representative’s task here is not to lead but to help devise a policy course acceptable to all member states and, once the policy has been created, lend it the political weight of the whole EU. Ashton has carefully interpreted this role in the nuclear talks with Iran, which she has conducted on behalf of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).

Finally, when member states have conflicting interests and all care about a particular issue, as they often do with regard to Russia, the high representative is limited to proposing lowest-common-denominator options that, however unsatisfying, represent what the EU can reasonably do. Ukraine, for better or for worse, is an example in which it would serve the EU little for the high representative to try to lead the member states to a destination that they have not (at least yet) agreed they want to go.

The high representative’s job description thus includes policy shaping, consensus building, and conflict management skills. The measure of his or her success is less a function of foreign policy chops than of the interpersonal skills the representative brings to the job. Measured against these requirements, Ashton’s record is decent. By the same token, there might be less reason to worry about Mogherini than some expect.

Mogherini is the high representative that EU leaders want. She is a woman, she is from the center-left, and she compensates the Italians for their recent losses in the international ranking of influential countries. Perhaps most significant, thanks to her lack of experience and high profile, she is unlikely to be able to challenge the member states’ principal role in EU foreign policy. Attesting to this is the fact that a number of EU member states agreed to her appointment despite having expressed concerns about Italy’s tendency to seek accommodation with Russia at a moment when Russia is invading its neighbor. However unhappy these countries may be with Mogherini’s selection, they are confident that her personal opinion on Russia will not affect the EU’s consensus-based foreign-policy-making process.

Mogherini’s weaknesses are real, but if she concentrates on what the EU high representative can realistically do, she can turn them into strengths. Her lack of defined policy positions on most issues will allow her to reflect consensus when it exists and to rely on the EEAS, which Ashton so assiduously built, to implement policies. This might make her an effective bridge builder between member states that disagree and also allows her to be more supportive than someone with a more established profile when vanguard groups of interested states want to move forward on specific issues on their own. Her lack of gravitas is more an issue of relative inexperience than a lack of personality. If she interprets correctly the multitasking role of the high representative, her standing will grow accordingly, as has happened with Ashton. Even on Russia policy, Mogherini has a unique opportunity. Although EU members are divided on what to do, Russia’s escalating aggression in Ukraine is slowly bringing them together. As an Italian associated with a relatively pro-Russian stance, her eventual calls to confront the Kremlin could be all the more effective.

The EU and the United States need a more unified and effective European foreign policy. But the EU is what it is. A U.S.-style secretary of state with a strong vision and lust for the spotlight would not transform the union because he or she would lack the legal authority and political legitimacy to do so. But a good high representative can still move the EU in the right direction, as long as he or she understands the subtleties of the role. And with the support of skilled advisers from the EEAS, Mogherini can be the high representative the EU needs.

This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.