Exceeding Expectations Federica Mogherini Is Hope of European Social Democrats

Early on, many considered Federica Mogherini to be too young and inexperienced for the EU's top diplomatic post. Today, her name is being tossed in the ring as a potential leading European politician.

Federica Mogherini, the EU High representative for foreign policy, in her Brussels office.
Wiktor Dabkowski/DER SPIEGEL

Federica Mogherini, the EU High representative for foreign policy, in her Brussels office.

By in Brussels


Actually, everything could have been perfect. Federica Mogherini is standing in the Sala Regia in the heart of the Vatican. Frescoes covering the wall depict watershed moments in Christian history. Pope Francis is about to receive the Charlemagne Prize for his contributions to European unity.

Mogherini shifts from one foot to the other. The Vatican's protocol assigned her a seat in the second row, but Mogherini isn't content just being a wallflower. Fortunately, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, an early supporter of Mogherini's, enters the room. She sees her opportunity and slips to the front to greet Renzi. The move put Mogherini in the circle of the powerful -- and she remains there until the photographers are chased to the back of the room.

Mogherini knows how to take center stage, that much is clear. It's also a skill she desperately needs in her job as the European Union's top diplomat, especially given that she doesn't command an army or have a powerful administration behind her. To achieve anything, Mogherini needs prudence and diplomatic prowess in order to prevail over her 28 mostly male colleagues from the EU member states.

Moghereini represents a generational shift at the center of EU power in Brussels. She's the first from the 40-something generation to land a top-level EU job, someone who grew up with the freedoms the union helped to create -- Interrail, borderless travel, Erasmus European university exchange scholarships and the common currency. Before coming to Brussels, she served as the youngest-ever foreign minister of Italy. Even at 42 years of age, she's still the youngest member of the European Commission. When she took office one and a half years ago, many considered her to be a compromise solution, an inexperienced novice. Since then, though, she has come to be considered by some as a possible lead candidate for the Social Democrats in the next elections for the European Parliament.

Saving Lives

The respect she now commands is also due in part to her more congenial leadership style, which contrasts significantly from her at-times abrasive predecessor, Lady Catherine Ashton of Britain. The refugee crisis has divided Europe, but it is also to the credit of Mogherini that the Continent is now united on at least one point. It was largely due to her initiative that the EU deployed a Mediterranean mission off the Libyan coast in order to prevent refugees from drowning and thwart human traffickers. "It is a disgrace that Europeans are just now waking up to the fact that more than 800 people just drowned off the coast of Lampedusa," Mogherini says. "We could have saved so many lives."

Mogherini is sitting in a red leather chair in her office on the 12th floor of the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission. The high representative for foreign affairs is wearing a black blazer and dark jeans. The wall of her office is adorned with a "Hope" poster from US President Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign.

Not everyone expected that Mogherini would get along so well in Brussels. Among her initial detractors was Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament with the conservative Christian Democrats who campaigned fiercely against her appointment. Brok, 70, with his walrus moustache and a wide, striped tie, has long been one of the most important voices in European foreign policy, having led the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament.

The German had hoped that a political heavyweight would be chosen for the top EU diplomatic post, someone like ex-Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski or his former Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt. Brok knew that the office itself bestows no powers and that its influence must come from the person appointed to it. A young woman did not fit well with his vision for the office, not to mention a person with as low an international profile as Mogherini's.

Brok was angry and felt that Mogherini was too inexperienced, too young and, worse yet, a left-wing, pro-Russian activist who would seem more at home in the youth arm of her party than at the helm of European diplomacy. The politician feared Mogherini would be easy prey for the alpha males leading the foreign ministries of EU member states.

But then, an old friend called him.

"Elmar," said the caller, "I am an old man and you still owe me a favor."

"Hmm, what do you need?" Brok asked.

"Be nice to her," the caller said. "She will call you tomorrow at 3 p.m."

The caller was Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, a supporter of Mogherini. The only photo on Moghereini's desk is one of the highly revered Italian politician.

Brok agreed to a meeting with Mogherini and, in the fall of 2014, the two sat down together on a hotel terrace in Milan. Mogherini was well prepared. She knew that Brok had taken part in a European youth forum together with Social Democratic Party politician Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the former German development minister, during the 1970s.

Uphill Battle

After their meeting, the hearing in Brok's commmitee no longer posed a problem. "She has answered all my questions fully," he said in praise. Today, Brok no longer complains about Mogherini and instead assists in her effort to shape a European style of diplomacy. "The foreign ministers of Germany and France should give her more space," Brok says.

Mogherini's problem is that true foreign policy power is still anchored firmly in the individual EU member state capitals. It's a fact that is palpable for her every time she travels abroad. On a Saturday in April, for example, she visited Tehran, where she received a warm welcome. The double doors of the Iranian Foreign Ministry opened automatically, as if by magic, and Mogeherini walked in together with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the country's foreign minister. The walls sparkled as if covered with a thousand mirrors.

"We are turning the page," Mogherini said confidently. "I speak on behalf of the 500 million Europeans that are supporting a new era in our relations." But Iranian journalists were less sure. They asked when their country would finally profit from the lifting of economic sanctions. Alas, there was little Mogherini could say, given that many banks are still waiting for US blessing before they start issuing loans to Iranian businesspeople.

Indeed, the power of the EU foreign policy chief is limited -- not just in relation to superpower America, but also in relation to larger EU member states, which refuse to easily relinquish their influence over foreign policy.

Instead they conduct the same kind of cabinet diplomacy practiced in the old days, as recently evidenced at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, where they discussed, among other things, whether or not EU ships could also join in the hunt for Islamic State terrorists in the future. The French and British foreign ministers debated the issue so fiercely that all the others present at the table suddenly seemed downgraded to the roles of extras in a film. This prompted Mogherini to tap the microphone at one point and say: "I am the chair here and this will be discussed among all 28 members present, not bilaterally."

Mogherini shakes her head over the battles among her male counterparts. "We have enough to do, we can complement each other," she said. But she also knows this is still little more than wishful thinking. A wave of renationalization has been crashing across Europe, not just in Britain, where the country is considering turning its back on the EU entirely. Against that backdrop, the idea of a common European foreign policy seems like a distant dream.

Nevertheless, Mogherini would still like to try. In the upcoming weeks, she will present a new foreign policy strategy for the EU, the first since 2003. It won't be a daring vision, but it will still be an attempt to counter the general sense of despondency in the EU.

At the moment, simply preserving the progress made so far is already considered to be a success -- and that's why many envision Mogherini running in the next elections as the leading candidate for the Social Democrats. Two years ago, the parties in the European parliament dared to conduct an experiment for the first time by appointing lead candidates who, if they won the vote, would then be appointed as the head of the European Commission. It was a step towards a true European democracy, but member states, including Germany, now want to back away from this system.

The best argument against reversing this democratization of Europe would be a persuasive candidate -- and Mogherini is indeed popular with many European Social Democrats. As a student, she served as an activist combatting xenophobia. Later, she led the foreign policy department of Italy's Democratic Party. And she has an eye for marketing. When she visited the headquarters of the EU mission in the Mediterranean in September, she was pleased to be able to announce that 2,200 people had already been rescued at sea by the EU deployment. The only thing she was unhappy about was the name of the operation: Eunavor Med.

Mogherini hates the cold abbreviated language of the military. She remembered that a Somalian baby had been born on the German frigate Schleswig-Holstein a short time before. Now the mission is named after that newborn African girl: Sophie.

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Smhc 05/27/2016
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To me Mogherini represents Europe at its best, that we as much as possible solve conflicts peacefully because that is how you achieve long lasting progress. Naturally the US were part of the deal but it represents a victory for the diplomatic method that European soft power represents. In contrast to the aggressive interventionism of the US (and its allies) which failures are all too visible in our current international conflicts. She is one of the only positives in our current Commission and actually manages to make me proud to be European. The only other Commissioner that has impressed me is Margrethe Vestager, but I might be biased because of my nationality.
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