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The appointment of the EU’s next top diplomat deserves far more attention 

The focus is on contenders for the “big three” EU jobs but foreign and security policy will be just as crucial in the years ahead  

By Sarah Raine  

Current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Frederica Mogherini. Photo: Larsen, Haakon Mosvold/Scanpix Norway/Press Association Images

Negotiations between EU leaders for the next “package deal” of EU top jobs are formally underway. In the margins of the G20 meeting in Tokyo this Friday, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel will engage in another round of informal debate before a special Council meeting of the EU this Sunday, where a final deal is meant to be agreed.

Discussions on the identities of the next Presidents of the EU Commission, Council, and European Central Bank are taking centre stage. Agreement on the EU’s next top diplomat, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (and Vice President of the Commission), is viewed as a fourth order concern; a consolation prize to be given out to the grouping/region/gender overlooked in the other appointments. This is misguided. For leaders who, only days ago, adopted a new EU Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024 that declares their intent to promote Europe’s interests and values in the world through more assertive, effective, and coordinated action, it is also self-defeating.

Since the position’s creation in 2009, all EU HR/VPs have come from the centre-left. (This is due to an informal understanding that sees the largest party group in parliament take the Commission job and the second largest the EU HR/VP job). Yet despite this strong clue, predicting the identity of the next incumbent has never been easy; in 2014 few foresaw the rapid promotion of Federica Mogherini, just nine months into her job serving as Italy’s youngest ever Foreign Minister. This time around arguable front runner, former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, is still pushing his case to become the new Commission President. Should this bid fail, Timmermans could still be left with nothing. His work in the last Commission, in particular on the rule of law brief, would make him a controversial pick with some central and eastern European member states.

But whatever the identity of the next EU HR/VP, the pressures of Europe’s deteriorating security environment require their urgent attention. Amongst other priorities, they will have to work to shore up the waning credibility of the EU’s enlargement policies, in particular in the Western Balkans. They will need to develop the concept of European “strategic autonomy” within the context of increasingly strained transatlantic relations, at least until the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election is clear, and perhaps beyond. More work will need to be done on the securing of the EU’s external borders; the future of the Schengen free movement zone depends on it.

The role of the EU will be critical in coordinating an effective response to the strategic channels for influence that China is developing on the continent. Meanwhile, as threats persist from Europe’s south and east, it would be helpful if the next EU HR/VP could be trusted by EU heads of state and government to carry a tough message on the Russia brief in a way that their predecessor never was.

The changing nature of defence and security threats to the continent will also highlight the importance of the EU’s central institutions and leaders, including the HR/VP, to fashioning an effective European response. In a world of hybrid warfare, the utility of the EU as a coordinating mechanism to meet these challenges will increasingly come to the fore. For example, work to combat the deliberate spread of disinformation, including through the European External Action Service’s East Stratcom team, will need urgent expansion.

The past few years have seen a flurry of EU initiatives on security and defence policy in particular. The next EU HR/VP should have the confidence and experience to avoid the temptation to add to these with grander pronouncements. What is needed now is follow-through.

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