international analysis and commentary

An opportunity for EU foreign policy: Mogherini as High Representative and her tasks


At a time in which the world is rapidly changing and hard security concerns have come back into the spotlight, the EU stands out as a regional organization capable of making a difference in the international arena through a particularly wide array of policies, besides the global strength of its economy. Yet, the Union has often – and rightly – been criticized for the lack of coherence in its external action. This is mainly due to its structural internal features, which envisage a separation of power at the institutional level, between the different policy-making actors, including of course the reality of national policies by the Member States. Prompted also by the resource constraints of the recent crisis, EU institutions and Member States seem to have reached a general consensus on the necessity for the EU to adopt a comprehensive approach to its external activities.

Against this backdrop, the coordinating role of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as Vice President of the European Commission (HR/VP), firstly introduced with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, should boost the capacity of the EU to fully exploit its qualifying characteristics. In addition to this,  the new HR/VP, Federica Mogherini, will coordinate and supervise the work of all the Commissioners involved in the EU’s external action. It remains open to question, however, by which means and to which extent Mogherini will make full use of the idea of creating “clusters” among various General Directorates (reporting to each Commissioner) in order to increase coherence.

In principle, all the right conditions might be there. According to the EU Commission President’s Political Guidelines, the new HR/VP will chair a Commissioners’ Group on External Action to develop a joint approach, coordinate and supervise the work of the Commissioners for Trade, Development, Humanitarian Aid and Neighbourhood policy. Mogherini seems to have taken such coordinating task seriously, moving the HR/VP office from the EEAS (European External Action Service) building to the Berlaymont, one of the Commission’s headquarters. Provided that the Political Guidelines offer a window of opportunity to enhance the coherence of EU external action, the new HR will have to face several challenges. In particular, she will have to fully commit herself to what analysts call the “politics of inter-institutional coordination”.

In order to provide real strategic guidance to the EU’s external action, the HR/VP can make full use of her chairing of the Foreign Affairs Council and of the EEAS chairing of the Political and Security Committee (PSC). In such setting, she will have a chance to push for the elaboration of long term regional and thematic strategies. Managing national prerogatives on foreign policies to ensure more coherence is certainly no easy task. Yet, having set clear strategies from the very beginning will make Member States uncomfortable in slowing down or even obstructing foreign policy measures undertaken by the HR/VP on the basis of common agreed documents and positions. Through her coordinating role as Vice President of the Commission, Mogherini can subsequently ensure that the different DGs under her supervision, including the Service for Foreign Policy Instrument (FPI, under the Commission’s umbrella) and the EEAS, would pursue the same policy objectives.

At a time of budgetary constraints during which any expense is difficult to justify to national public opinions, conducting a unified European foreign policy might be not only more productive, but also less costly for national capitals. A common stance, taken to its logical operational consequences, would actually be seen as a form of rationalization and streamlining. Considering that EU civil operations are funded out of the EU budget and that Member States share operational costs when deploying military operations, such aspect would be, for instance, particularly relevant in EU crisis management.

Another crucial issue to be tackled regards strategic analysis. It is in fact essential for the latter to be conducted by joined-up structures composed of officials coming from the individual DGs. Ideally, such structures or task forces might be chaired by EEAS officials. Representatives from the Service for Foreign Policy Instrument (FPI) should also be part of such initiative as it manages, among other things, the implementation of the EU’s CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) budget; the delivery of crisis response and preventive measures; the implementation of the Partnership Instrument and of electoral observation missions; and the preparation and implementation of sanctions.

In any case, common analyses as a basis for action also require a single approach to international affairs. Building a common organizational culture will be an essential part of creating a united and coherent foreign policy. EU officials do often share a common bureaucratic culture in other sectors, but this is not true for what concerns the EEAS. Most of the diplomats composing this structure spent their professional careers in national ministries and are therefore relatively new to Brussels. At times, they even struggle to integrate with members of the Commission from their own countries. Learning to work together under the supervision of the HR/VP will foster a common world view at various policy levels.

Another challenge and opportunity for Mogherini will be to maximize the power of the purse. It will indeed be essential to create, as in the case of strategic analysis, joined-up structures for the common management of the budget devoted to EU foreign policy. The latter is still handled by different institutional actors inside the Commission. Strikingly, each of these is entitled to manage and spend through different financial instruments, which, in turn, are implemented and monitored by different officials. An additional problem is that some of the DGs involved in the delivering of such instruments and policies are not formally among the ones Mogherini will be entitled to directly coordinate and supervise according to President Junker’s Political Guidelines. Among these, the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, for instance, is managed by DG Enlargement, DG Employment and Social Affairs and DG Agriculture.

Institutional divisions between what is sometimes called the “high” policy management of EU foreign policy on behalf of the EEAS, and its “low” policy budgeting on behalf of the Commission should, to say the least, be tempered. In other words, the EU’s toolbox is certainly fully furnished, but the keys of the toolbox are held by too many institutions for it to be efficiently used.

The inherent risks of a multifaceted institutional role upon which lies the entire responsibility of the EU foreign policy are clear. In contrast to Lady Ashton, Mogherini will not be as time consumed as her predecessor by the establishment of the European External Action Service. The current Commission President, Mr. Juncker, seems willing to play a somewhat downsized role in comparison with his predecessor, Mr. Barroso, and this might create some more space for the HR/VP. Yet, the coordination of the Commissioner’s portfolio will certainly enhance the complexity of Mogherini’s job.

In the international arena, the most challenging task for such a complex actor as the EU is to provide a coordinated representation of its interests. Mogherini will have to find a balance between her main tasks. She will need to effectively represent the EU at international events and in crisis settings and at the same time ensure an energetic coordinating role in Brussels: this will imply delegating as much as possible to trusted team members. But the delegating process might work both ways: as Mr. Juncker stated in his political guidelines, he would entrust external relations Commissioners “with the task of deputizing for the High Representative both within the work of the College and on the international stage”.

Yet, the experience of the past few years has shown how important it is, for the EU to be taken seriously, to have a single actor representing it. Such deputizing should therefore rather apply to a functional level to ensure the smoothness of the EU’s external action in the inter-institutional working of Brussels, rather than in its international representation. The challenges are many – most of them well known, others unpredictable – but challenges can inspire a common response. This is overdue and presents the new Brussels leadership with a genuine opportunity.