Friday, November 28, 2014

Renzi’s Choice, Europe’s Loss

ROME – The appointment of Federica Mogherini, Italy’s foreign minister, as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has exposed two fictions. One is that EU member states care about a common foreign policy; the other is that Italy has a strong and credible government.

To be sure, the selection of the 41-year-old Mogherini scores well for gender, age, and political affiliation. But it also sends a strong message that foreign policy remains a low priority for the EU’s new leadership. Despite the difficult geopolitical situation now confronting Europe, the post of High Representative still carries little influence. Indeed, until early this year, Mogherini had little exposure to foreign policymaking.

Henry Kissinger famously (if apocryphally) asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” Today, he would know to call Mogherini, but then he would ask, “Mogherini who?” Four decades later, Europe has still not found an effective and plausible way to speak with one voice on foreign policy.

No one doubts that Mogherini will try her best to learn the nitty-gritty of her new job, but it will be like learning to fly by piloting a jumbo jet. Most of the time, an inexperienced pilot can avoid serious problems by relying on her more experienced crew and various technologies. But in the event of severe turbulence, only a pilot with sufficient skill and practice will be able to maintain control of the aircraft and keep the passengers calm.

So it is disturbing, to say the least, that with Ukraine at war with Russia, and the Middle East in a spiraling crisis of fanaticism, Europe’s leaders did not seek a candidate with a proven ability to forge an effective foreign policy from different – and often opposite – positions. EU foreign policy is now being piloted by an apprentice.

Mogherini’s appointment bodes ill for progress toward a more assertive, or at least unified and coherent, European foreign-policy stance. But it is also a bad outcome for gender equality and for Italy. Women should be picked because their skills, qualifications, and experience are relevant to the job. Appointing women should not be an exercise in ticking boxes. A lack of qualified women in Europe is no excuse for not making a meaningful appointment.

The perversity of Mogherini’s appointment is that Italy does have highly qualified women candidates. Emma Bonino, a former foreign minister, trade minister, and EU Commissioner, is outstandingly qualified. So is Marta Dassù, a former deputy foreign minister and foreign-policy intellectual. Both women would have been more convincing appointments, particularly to those, like Vladimir Putin, who do not wish the EU well.

By insisting on Mogherini, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has squandered much of the political capital that he gained from the outcome of the European Parliament election in May, when his government performed better than any other in the EU. By refusing to budge, despite strong opposition to Mogherini from the EU’s Eastern European members, he has painted himself (and Italy) into a corner, revealing the limits of his leadership.

Renzi himself is not well versed in foreign affairs. Indeed, he had no experience in government or parliament whatsoever until he became, at 39, the youngest person to become Prime Minister of Italy. His only significant public service was a stint as Mayor of Florence, a city of less than a half-million people.

Many Italians applauded Renzi’s meteoric rise. But many more have remained indifferent to his promise to shake up the status quo. His charisma has not lifted confidence; on the contrary, the latest consumer and business surveys indicate weakening sentiment. His brusque and sometimes arrogant manner and his preference for loyalty over skill have led many to question his ability to lead, much less transform the country.

With Italy on the brink of a Japanese-style recessionGDP is expected to contract by 0.2% this year, and inflation entered negative territory in August – one would have expected Renzi to focus on the economy, and on Italy’s role in Europe’s single market and monetary union. And yet, bizarrely, he shifted the European debate from German-led budgetary austerity to Mogherini.

Is the Italian government really so eager to take the lead on EU foreign policy? If so, where is the plan?

Renzi needs to shift gears and make friends, at home and abroad. Reforming Italy, and changing the narrative in Europe, is a huge task that requires the careful formulation of an agenda containing detailed, feasible objectives, as well as the patience to engage other EU governments in a constructive policy dialogue, not horse-trading.

Above all, Renzi needs to reflect on the fact that Italy remains the eurozone’s weakest link, because it is the only member that can bring down the currency union. Italy’s economic health is thus a “public good” for all of Europe. Dismissing this responsibility and declaring to Europe that no one can teach lessons to Italy, as he did during the fight to appoint Mogherini, is both shortsighted and potentially dangerous.

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    1. CommentedAndrew Allison

      "Italy remains the eurozone’s weakest link, because it is the only member that can bring down the currency union." Nonsense. France at least as weak a link.

    2. CommentedPaul Peters

      "Divide and conquer" starts with setting up Italian again Italian. There's a lot one might say about Renzi but at least he tries to bet on a positive change and that is what differentiates him from the post-fascist reflux which has been haunting the Italian psyche for the last few decades.

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Indeed, Paola Subacchi makes the point that Federica Mogherini's appointment sends a negative message - "foreign policy remains a low priority for the EU’s new leadership". She holds Matteo Renzi responsible for this bad decision and sees him as feckless. He became prime minister after having ousted his colleague Enrico Letta in February 2014, insisting Italy needed "profound change" to get out of the quagmire.
      His radical break from the past in both style and policy was popular and many Italians welcomed the overdue generational change. Besides they were fed up with the political establishment, which is corrupt and lethargic. Yet Renzi's promise of rapid economic and political reform, including tax cuts, creating jobs and removing law-making powers from the Senate remains unfulfilled.
      Mogherini is taking over from Catherine Ashton a complex portfolio, who, as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (and vice-President of the European Commission) had done an excellent job in negotiating with Iran, Syria and Russia. Even the Iranian delegation has a high regard for her.
      There were, and still are, many in the Eu who are concerned that Mogherini lacks experience and may be too acquiescent to resist Russia. Ms. Subacchi believes, "Mogherini’s appointment bodes ill for progress toward a more assertive, or at least unified and coherent, European foreign-policy stance". Mogherini now has an opportunity to prove the sceptics wrong and fill Catherine Ashton's shoes.
      "We still all know that the military way is not the solution (in Ukraine)," she said after being nominated. "We have to keep the diplomatic way open." Indeed she will have to put her skills to the test.
      Renzi's arrogance, "declaring to Europe that no one can teach lessons to Italy, as he did during the fight to appoint Mogherini, is both shortsighted and potentially dangerous", but it would hardly have political consequences for him, as he may be remembered merely as Italy's youngest prime minister in modern history.

    4. CommentedAndrei Sandberg

      i see the problem. As comparison many academics and laymen in Finland are in shock that former PM of Finland, Mr. Jyrki Katainen, saw fit to leave his post as Prime Minister of Finland (yes apparently people can just go and do whatever they want for better career opportunities), to get to Brussels to be the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro until 2014. Only to leave Mr. Alexander Stubb, an right-wing social darwinist, to steer the ship into deepers waters.

      We can of course thank Olli Rehn for doing an excellent job...before passing the torch to Katainen. A status quo or a deepening crisis is foreseeable. Maybe it will take Antonio Draghi to lower the value of the euro compared to the USD to see at least the economy go up.

      it is probable that Rehn has talked to Juncker about Katainens appointment. Katainen, the neoliberal right-wing career opportunist, is not going to make things better for us. We have the past to prove it. He is too young and too neoliberal.

      Now Katainen has been appointed by Juncker to be the Commissioner of Growth and Employment from 2015-. This is sad to say but this is a farce and has been for a long time. After crashing almost the whole Finnish economy, unemployment rose his whole term, outsourcing on a massive scale, delivering moral degradation, destroying the historically unpresedented welfare state (one can not blame just on one person but he really did a good job) it should be expected to see this kind of "expertise" going to the top of the European Commission. The corruption of power is a fact. There is of course the chance of blindness, ideologies, simple indifference or negligence, but this behaviour is a serious threat to the whole idea why we wanted the EU, a peace and stability project benefiting all of us. By all these undemocratic and some might say unjust and corrupt nominations by elite power, we could be gloomy and call ouselves "the lost generation" instead of just the "lost decade" as Joseph Stiglitz amongst others have pointed out.

      What have we learned? We also have to start questioning (well most of us have done it for many years) the legitimacy of the European Commission and how Europe can function with this current power structure. The EU Parliament should have the executive power. Not the lobbying firms and the European Round Table. A democratic deficit is also a result after what has happened the last decades.

      With so many different countries with different cultures, behaviours, structures we should start asking for less centralized power and work together for maybe a stronger alliance, not union. Yes, this is possible due to us humans having an excellent skill on seeing what is good for ourselves both individually and collectively. The EU is simply broken and we have lost a vision for a better future.

      As we so often have seen in the past there is a risk when power is in the hands of the few. Especielly people who are not elected for the job. Theoretically, if these kinds of appointments should be done, the people should be awarded jobs according to how they succeeded in the past.

      A high moral, sence of justice, integrity and understanding all people's needs should be focused on when we think and pick leaders of future. We can all draw our own conclusions from the past and see where this ship now is going. This is a sad story but we can make it a happier one. Even the smallest things matter. Respectfully
      Andrei Sandberg

    5. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      I find it quite unpleasant that you talk down on Mogherini. Indeed, the High Representative position is a token for the European Parliament to call for a stronger EU foreign policy and blaming the person in office. Member states do not want a strong European foreign policy. And seriously, it's a European foreign office without military options. I am sure Renzi proposed Federica Mogherini because she is the right choice for the office -as it is -, not what it is imagined up to become.

    6. CommentedKaj Leers

      Unfortunately, Paola Subacchi demonstrates with her article that she doesn't grasp EU politics.

      The truth is that the High Representative for Foreign Affairs position is, and always has been, an empty shell. From the start the High Representative is someone who sits by the phone and acts as a messenger to communicatie whatever Berlin and the other 26 EU capitals agree on.

      So the High Representative is constantly on the EU leadership's leash. He or she is simply not allowed to develop and articulate individual policies or opinions; it's not in the mandate.

      Because of this the EU leaders wisely appoint someone who is content with a low profile to fill the position.

      That Mogherini was selected is also logical in the EU universe. First, it had to be someone from either Southern or Eastern Europe.

      Second, because Tusk -- an avowed critic of Putin and Russia -- was selected to become President of the European Council (ceremonial as the position may be), he had to be evened out by someone who is less of a Putin critic: Mogherini.

      It's the EU councils of national ministers that stipulate policy, not the selected officials. Countries outside the EU know this. That is why Washington DC, for instance, has not once directly contacted either the President, the Chairman of the European Commission or the High Representative in the past 5 years. Instead, Obama and Clinton / Kerry have always called Berlin, Paris, London and (sometimes) Warsaw.

      Everybody, including Henry Kissinger, has the phone number of the High Representative. But the sad fact is that everybody knows there's no point in calling her, or anyone in Brussels.

    7. CommentedAndrew Zimin

      Henry Kissinger famously (if apocryphally) asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”

      No problem! Call Moscow, Kremlin.

    8. Commentedyassin sabha

      The Appointment of Federica Mogherini is a Missed Opportunity for Renzi and for Italy to Gain Credibility Internationally.
      After heated negotiations, both internatioanally and domestically, Matteo Renzi was able to get his protégée Federica Mogherini appointed as European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs. What could have been a great opportunity for Italy to revive its role internationally as a medium power with global interests has, on the other hand, highlighted the weakness of Matteo Renzi’s foreign policy and his arguable commitment to meritocracy.