The “importance” of being High Representative

On August 30, Federica Mogherini was nominated as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR). From that moment on, for political and nationalist reasons there has been a common voice of pride and appraisal in Italy. With the initial excitement long gone, it could be useful to look at this high role with unbiased eyes. What it entails, how, and why.

The HR is by far the most discussed institutional novelty of Lisbon, even if it is not precisely new. In fact, it became preeminent only after Lisbon (2007). In particular if one takes into account the role that this figure aims to play in the most national of all the policies: foreign affairs and security policy. In the mind of the framers it had to be the equivalent of the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs of the failed constitutional project of 2004.

The characteristics of these two figures within the two Treaties are almost identical[1]. The aim of this is to enhance the position of the European Union in the world; and in the mind of the framers this should be possible thanks to new foreign policy instruments and a fully recognized visibility.

How is this new role embedded in the overall framework of Lisbon? According to Articles 17 and 18 (TEU), the HR is appointed by the European Council by qualified majority with the agreement of the President of the Commission and the consent of the European Parliament. As responsible for the CFSP and the CSDP (art. 38 TEU), he/she has the right to preside the Foreign Affairs Council and to make proposals. Its intergovernmental role is complemented by the fact that he/she is the Vice-President of the Commission, as a result of the merging between its role with the former Commissioner for External Relations. The rationale behind what is widely known as a “double-hat” – that is the simultaneous chair in the supranational Commission and in the intergovernmental Council – was to give “horizontal coherency” to the external activity of the Union in its two natures. To help the Commission and the Council in finding common solutions, and at the same time, enhancing cooperation among member states due to its primary role in the FAC, are the ultimate goals of this condition. In addition to that, it the symbolic importance of “giving a name and a face” to the EU in international fora should not be underestimated[2]. An effective response to Kissinger’s “I want to speak to Europe” punch line. On a final note, it has to be stressed that to date, unanimity remains the standard procedure for the CFSP, even if the Lisbon Treaty has given the HR a formal right of initiative and introduced improvements regarding the use of QMV under some circumstances.

As emerged from this short overview, institutional complexity seems to be the single biggest challenge that Federica Mogherini will face. In particular there are controversies that could rise in the near future. The new set of competencies that have been given to her, could easily provoke inter and intra-institutional tensions; two in particular: 1) with the President of the Commission, who could see his role as primus inter pares vested by the HR role as Vice-President of the Commission, with almost exclusive initiative in the external affairs. In addition, the President of the Commission which has among his duties, the responsibility to coordinate different portfolios, could have problems in the coordination of those areas included in the external affairs. In a word, the conflict with the HR could be detrimental to the overall coherency of the CFSP. 2) The same can be said about the equal relation among the different Commissioners, which could be undermined by the HR’s powers; becoming a further element of disequilibrium among member states. Also the “double-hat” that is on the head of the HR, originally designed as a boost for coherency, proved to be problematic when tested. While on one hand, the HR is a fundamental figure of the Commission, on the other, its accountability towards the Council is clear. In case of hard decisions, the HR could have prejudices in favor of the European Council’s opinion rather than the Commission’s one[3]. The almost dull experience of Lady Ashton appears as a proof of that. There is not a great amount of records of conflict between the HR and each member states. Something that is, on the other hand, recurring in different policy areas.

Other problems could raise because of the HR role within the FAC. Smaller states for instance, used to rely on the possibility of holding this Presidency in order to shape the EU agenda according to their preferences. To assign for 5 years this chair will certainly lead to a loss of influence of the smaller member States in favor of: first, the nation of the incumbent HR (now Italy); second, the most military influential States. If all this is true, one of the basic features of the EU model of democracy, namely the necessary compromise among asymmetrical states, will be at risk[4].

Finally, terminologically speaking, it possible to argue that the choice to insist in the denomination of this figure as an “High Representative”, rather than a “Union Minister” as in the drafts of the 2004 Convention, engenders several implications. The most evident is the diffused feeling among member states, that the HR is more a diplomat acting on behalf of the Union, rather than a part of it.

Helwig pushed himself even further in the criticism[5]. Going well beyond technicality, he claimed that once again the EU foreign policy is characterized by a capabilities-expectations gap, and that this time, the problem can be addressed also for the single institution of the HR. In his opinion, expectations toward the redesigned HR were set way too high for an actor whose actual capabilities were to be confronted with the unresolved dichotomy of the whole system of foreign policy in the EU.

If this analysis is correct, the overall result of years of institutionalization has ended up in re-creating paradoxically the original problem of the EU foreign policy, the capability-expectations gap, also in the structures created to solve the problem. Federica Mogherini and her enthusiastic supporters, at the end of the day, could easily regret the choice of such a hard fight for this spot. On the other hand, the 5 year experience of Lady Ashton, in addition to the more consolidated institutional setting of Lisbon, could also represent an opportunity to finally match the expectations, at least in more appropriate terms.




Masters’ degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)



[1] Gaspers J., The Quest for European Foreign Policy Consistency and the Treaty of Lisbon, “Humanitas Journal of European Studies”, vol. 2 (1), 2008.

[2] Avery G., The new architecture for EU foreign policy, “Challenge Europe Issue”, 17, 2007.

[3] Crowe B., Foreign Minister of Europe, London, Foreign Policy Centre, 2005.

[4] Fabbrini S., Compound Democracies: Why the United States and Europe are Becoming Similar, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[5] Helwig N., EU Foreign Policy and the High Representative’s Capability-Expectations Gap: A question of Political Will, “European Foreign Affairs Review”, 18 (2), 2013.

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