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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.