Attempts led by the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski to stop the Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini, whom he considers to be soft on Russia, becoming the new EU foreign policy chief look likely to fail when her appointment is debated by the European Council on Wednesday.
Mogherini remains the front runner despite concerns expressed by Sikorski and his allies in the Baltic States that she has not been taking a hard enough line on Russia and Ukraine.
Critics complain about Italy’s backing for South Stream, a controversial pipeline which would bring gas into Europe by way of the Black Sea and bypass Ukraine. They also point out that she made her first overseas trip as foreign minister to Russia.
Sikorski himself was mentioned as a possible successor to Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief for the last five years, until accounts of secret recordings were published last month by a Polish magazine showing his foul-mouthed contempt for Poland’s relationship with America, which he called “complete bullshit.” He also mocked British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to placate the eurosceptic wing of his Conservative party.
Baltic diplomats opposed to Mogherini, who has been foreign minister in Rome only since February, have also been emphasising her lack of experience of Eastern Europe.
However, Ashton, the out-going High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, to give the job its full title, was dropped into the post almost five years ago as a political concession to then-British Labour prime minister Gordon Brown.
Before arriving in Brussels, Ashton had no foreign policy or government experience. She was a socialist “quangocrat,” a Labour party loyalist who had a medium level career in a series of jobs to which she was appointed but never elected, following her earlier work in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a high-ranking official with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
More, the job of the High Representative is not to initiate policy, it is to gather opinion on foreign policy issues among the 28 member states of the EU and formulate a “consensus” position which all 28 will support.
Mogherini, who has been criticised by her opponents for being slow to support sanctions on Russia, is in fact more in line with EU consensus, in particular with sentiment in Germany, than with Poland and the Baltic States.
According to Euractiv, a source in the Italian foreign ministry rejected accusations that the Rome government had been reluctant to impose EU sanctions on Moscow over its behaviour in Ukraine: “We have always voted in line with the rest of the EU in support of the sanctions,” he said.
However, Mogherini and Italy have reason to be cautious on sanctions. Earlier this month Vladimir Dimitriev, a Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin, warned that sanctions against Russia could cost Italy at least €10bn (£8bn), even before any retaliatory action by Moscow.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with whom German Chancellor Angela Merkel is building a close relationship and who now holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and French President François Hollande, were reported to have held a conference call at the weekend during which they agreed to endorse Mogherini.
Should however enough doubts be raised among other leaders about her inexperience, and because of horse-trading over candidates for the other top jobs, it is unlikely any candidate taking a tough line on Russia would get the job instead.
The choice would most like be Kristalina Georgieva, an ex-World Bank economist who is Bulgaria’s European Commissioner. Many in Brussels consider she has made a success of her time with the commission’s humanitarian aid portfolio. She would also meet demands from the member states from Eastern Europe that one of their own should be given a top job.