ROME (Reuters) - Federica Mogherini must show she has the experience and clout to succeed as the European Union’s new foreign policy chief, just as her predecessor had to overcome a reputation as a diplomatic lightweight.
The 41-year-old career politician, who became Italian foreign minister only in February, has been seen throughout her career as a politician who prefers to skirt controversy rather than take tough policy stands.
Cynics say her appointment at an EU summit on Saturday confirms that member states want to keep their own tight grip on foreign policy issues, much the same as they said when Catherine Ashton became the EU’s first foreign policy chief in 2009.
Ashton arrived as an unelected member of the British upper house of parliament with no foreign policy experience. However she grew into the job and, while she always had detractors, won praise for coordinating international nuclear talks with Iran which produced an interim deal last year.
Now Mogherini, a member of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), also has to win over doubters. While she brings more foreign policy experience to the job than Ashton did, her stance on the Ukraine crisis will be closely scrutinized, especially by ex-communist states which opposed her nomination at an earlier EU summit.
These governments in central and eastern Europe fear she will be too soft on Russia, one of Italy’s biggest energy suppliers and export markets. The EU, along with the United States, has imposed sanctions on Moscow for annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The EU is threatening further trade measures, but in her first comments after her nomination Mogherini stressed the need to push for a lasting diplomatic deal too.
“As we think and we work on the level of sanctions, we also have to keep the diplomatic way open ... hoping that the combination, a wise combination, can be effective,” she said.
While Mogherini may lack charisma and government experience - the Italian foreign affairs portfolio was her first cabinet post - she has dedicated most of her career to foreign policy, and colleagues describe her as informed and hard-working.
“She’s very sober and serious, not picturesque or colorful,” said Luca Bader, a PD colleague who has worked with her for many years.
There are signs Mogherini may now want to change that image. She did nothing to hide her glee at getting the new job, which she takes up on Nov. 1. On Sunday she said on Twitter she was already “at work,” and posted a photo of the EU handover files.
Former PD leader Walter Veltroni, who appointed her to the party’s executive committee in 2007, said he had been “immediately struck by her rigor and her solid foundations,” adding that she was “always intent on studying the dossiers”.
Unlike the new Polish European Council President Donald Tusk, she is also fluent in English and proficient in French, languages which are vital for communicating within the EU and with the wider world.
Mogherini defended herself against the charges of inexperience, saying that at 41 she was “not so young” and indeed older than her boss Renzi, who is 39. Describing herself as one of “a new generation of European leaders”, she hoped to be able to help “bridge the gap” that has opened up between many of the EU’s citizens and its political institutions.
As vice president of the European Commission she may also be able to exert some influence on economic policy as Renzi, to whom she is considered utterly loyal, pushes to make the euro zone’s fiscal rules less stringent.
Appointed for five years, subject to approval by the European Parliament, she may not be thrown in at the deep end on Iran as the P5+1 - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - try to negotiate a permanent settlement with Tehran on its disputed nuclear program.
A senior Western diplomat said last month that Ashton was likely to continue leading the nuclear talks with Tehran after her term ends on Oct. 31, as the target date for a deal is only a few weeks later on Nov. 24.
However, other international crises await Mogherini apart from Ukraine, including in the Middle East, where her academic studies might offer some useful background.
The daughter of a film director, she graduated from Rome’s Sapienza University with a degree in political science and a thesis on Islamism that she completed during studies in France.
Mogherini was first elected to parliament in 2008, joining the lower house committee on foreign affairs and taking the PD’s top foreign policy job last year.
An admirer of the United States, she told Reuters this year that one day she would like to work there.
additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by David Stamp