According to multiple press reports, European Union leaders are poised to choose Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as the EU’s next foreign policy chief at a summit on Saturday. A previous summit to discuss the position ended in deadlock in July when the Baltics and several Eastern European states objected to Mogherini due to concerns that she was too soft on Russia and lacked foreign policy experience, as she has only been in her position since January.
Now decision day has arrived and Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is determined to push her candidacy through even if some disagree. As one EU diplomat told the Financial Times, “You still have a group of countries who will be quite unsatisfied, but they don’t have a blocking minority.” In a comment that could have been made by Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” Italian Minister Sandro Gozi previewed this strategy in July, saying, “The possibility of a majority vote … is part of the game and cannot be ruled out.”
This highly consequential foreign policy decision is being made on the basis of criteria that have nothing to do with foreign policy. No one claims that Mogherini is the best person to deal with Russia but asking who is is not seen as a relevant question. The sharing of the spoils of several top jobs between the parties means that it must go to a socialist and Europe’s socialist leaders want to help Renzi. There is pressure to appoint a woman because EU leaders have failed to nominate women for other top posts or for the rest of the commission. Merkel had concerns but she is apparently willing to let it slide if it means stopping Italy from diluting the EU’s budget rules. Others are doing their own deals. The bottom line is that foreign policy is almost entirely absent from the discussion.
In normal times, this would be a bit unseemly but not outrageous. These are not normal times however. It is easily forgotten in Rome and Paris but Russia poses a real and near-term threat to some EU members—Latvia, Estonia and maybe even Lithuania. These states have asked for more assistance and support from their allies in NATO and from other EU members. They are deeply concerned by Mogherini’s nomination. Italy has strong economic ties with Russia and has frequently opposed tougher sanctions. Mogherini’s visit to Moscow early this year and her language of respecting Russian interests raised concerns about exactly what those interests are and whether she understands where the fault lies.
In a clear reference to Mogherini, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė said that the EU must not pick someone who is “pro-Kremlin”—an exaggerated charge, perhaps, but indicative of the sensitivity and concern her candidacy has caused. But above all is the view that others are better qualified to deal with the Russian challenge—not just in terms of years clocked on the foreign policy beat but in the substance of what they say and do about it. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, is a leading example. Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski is another. Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, currently EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, would be a good compromise candidate.
One would think that the views of these member states would be taken extremely seriously by the rest of the EU. Instead, isolating and defeating them is just another “part of the political game.” Needless to say, this is not a game. It is the most serious security threat Europe has faced in over two decades. Two hundred and twelve EU citizens were killed by a Russian missile fired by Russian backed separatists in July. Thousands have died in Ukraine as a result of the war Russia started. And in recent weeks, Russian forces have begun a formal invasion of Ukraine.
It is mind-boggling that in a week when Russia opened a third front in Ukraine, European leaders are even considering appointing anyone other than someone with a proven track record of understanding and meeting Russia’s challenge, let alone a person who has consistently underestimated the risk. It’s as if a climate skeptic from the oil industry was to be appointed as environment minister.
It is true, of course, that the foreign policy chief, whoever he or she is, will not make EU policy. That will continue to be the domain of individual member states, especially Germany. But appointing the wrong person will do no good and may do some harm. Appointing the right person could serve the purpose of rallying the member states, pressuring them to stick to their previous declarations, and being a powerful voice for Europe’s values and its interests in a peaceful and free continent.
The EU owes it to its own citizens to make a decision of this magnitude solely on foreign policy grounds. It should not sell out the Baltics to keep the gravy train flowing. This is no time for business as usual.