THE BLOG
11/01/2014 08:18 am ET Updated Jan 01, 2015

Women Leaders in (EU) Foreign Policy: will Mrs Be Better than Lady?

On Halloween night, the European Commission -- Europe's "executive" -- changed. At the helm of foreign policy, Lady PESC -- as Catherine Ashton was known -- gave way to Mrs PESC, as Federica Mogherini prefers to be called. Two different women leaders, two leadership styles in foreign policy. The right time for an assessment and for a preview of what it is possibly to come.

Lady Catherine Ashton was named EU High Representative in November 2009. Her early days in office did not progress well, undermining her image and stance for a long time. Her nomination in November 2009 had come as a surprise: Ashton had been an EU Commissioner for a few months but she was little known to the European public, let alone to the rest of the world. Her name came in after months of speculations over whether a high-caliber politician would take the job. Hence, Ashton was seen as a living proof of the unwillingness of the EU to matter on the world scene.

Mrs Mogherini was equally little known before her turbulent nomination; likewise, her nomination was proceeded by expectations that heavy weights like Carl Build and Radosław Sikorski might get the job. The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi threatened a veto to have her named.

At her hearing at the European Parliament, Mogherini however passed her first test with full marks, also giving a early taste of her leadership style. While Ashton is known for her bad temper -- so much that her aides took classes to cope with it -- Mogherini's style is soft. A conciliatory tone, also supported by her younger age and reassuring physical appearance. For unfair that this is, bad temper and physical appearance are unfortunately more penalizing for women leaders than for men. Assertive women are often perceived as aggressive; aggressiveness is ok for men but lethal for women leaders. In this sense, Mogherini seem to have find her own voice, as communication experts would call it. The mail Mogherini wrote to the EEAS staff, thanking for their work in preparing the hearing, was also very well received and seen by many as a nice change in pace. Oddly, however, in the hearing Mogherini did not thank Ashton: word is that the two do not see eye to eye.

Ashton did not have an administration to rely on and setting it up was not an easy task. The making of the European External Action Service (EEAS) -- a horrid Euro-jargon word invented to avoid using EU diplomacy -- soon became the focus of a tribal-diplomatic war. The European Commission at war with the national governments, the European Parliament threatening to block or delay the creation of the new service; new member states at odds with the old ones; small countries rallying against the big bullies; big countries plotting one against the other.

In short, all the odds were against Ashton. Four years after, it is fair to say that she did a reasonable job. Given the conditions, hardly anyone could have done better. Ashton proved to be a formidable negotiator; her ability in shaping the Serbia-Kossovo agreement and in leading the negotiations with Iran (where she is supposed to stay on) are widely recognized both inside and outside Europe. She was the first to visit Egypt after the turmoil and overall won American appraisal and trust.

Federica Mogherini now inherits a decently working machine and can bring the EEAS to the next level. As an EU high official put in, Ashton began as a Brit and ended up as a European. Mogherini is already a convinced European -- a member of the Erasmus generation, as she often likes to recall. She though comes from a country, Italy, who has a record of leaving its European representatives alone in Brussels and that too often fights for the shiny positions, forgetting where the real power lies. In the new Commission, Italy has only one Chief of Staff - Mogherini's own one - as compared to five German Chief of Staff and twelve deputies.
Mogherini announced a review of EEAS for the spring. That can be her point of force or turn into her dead end. While a Foreign Minister in Italy, she has tried to escape the minutiae of administering the machine to concentrate on travel. It is a common mistake, especially for people with limited managing experience: fearing the "machine", they concentrate on the big foreign policy issues, forgetting the fundamental role that the administration plays in implementation phase.

Mogherini likes to travel the world and to lead foreign policy. This might prove a bit more difficult at the EU level rather than at the national one. Among her national colleagues, Ashton chose to play the broker, rather than primus inter pares; Mogherini is likely to act the other way round. Whether she will manage, it is another story. Gone Carl Bildt and Radosław Sikorski, there are no heavy weights left in the General Affairs Council -- as the gathering of Foreign Ministers is called -- to counterbalance her. However, while the smaller EU countries have an interest in a functioning EU foreign policy -- as it helps them amplifying their voice - the bigger ones are definitely not likely to surrender more power to the EU level in foreign policy.

According to Carnegie Europe, the EU High Representative shall be more like the U.S. National Security Advisor than the US Secretary of State. It is unlikely that Mogherini will follow this particular advice. It would also be a fundamental mistake to confound her soft style with lack of will. After she failed to be named by the European Council last July, she decided to fight back and put all her energy in networking and raising her international profile to achieve her goal.

In 1985, Jacques Delors was named at the head of the European Commission because Margaret Thatcher was deceived by his seemingly unassuming semblance and tone. He inherited a low-spirited administration, vexed by the difficult Seventies. He turned out to be the most formidable Commission President the EEC/EU has ever had ever, without whom neither the Single Market nor the Euro would exist. Today's messy world need a stronger unified European voice more than ever. May the new Mrs Pesc be the EU foreign policy's Delors.