Federica Mogherini is the frontrunner to succeed Catherine Ashton as the EU’s top foreign policy official at a summit in Brussels on Wednesday, but Poland and the three Baltic states are worried that Italy has taken a soft line on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius on Tuesday became the first head of government to declare opposition to Mogherini: "The Italian foreign minister's candidacy will not be supported," he told public broadcaster LRT, according to AFP. He said his view was shared by the Baltic state's President Dalia Grybauskaite, who will represent Lithuania at the EU summit on Wednesday.
Critics also point to Italy’s backing for South Stream, a controversial gas pipeline in southern Europe which they say is designed to blackmail Ukraine. The fact that she made her first overseas trip as foreign minister to Russia has also come in for criticism.
Criticism isn’t confined to eastern Europe. A Twitter campaign entitled #StopFederica highlights the Italian’s shortcomings. The instigator of the campaign, British author and journalist Edward Lucas, said Italy had a different perspective on European security and “doesn’t see why we should mind about Russia.”
“There were very strong ties between Berlusconi and Putin. These have continued in a different way under the current government,” he told The Local.
“Now more than ever we need a strong figure and one who knows the dangers Russia poses.”
Mogherini, who only became foreign minister in February, has powerful backers. She was approved by Europe’s centre-left leaders as their candidate in a phone call on Saturday, according to the Financial Times.
With centre-right Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker almost certain to be approved as President of the European Commission, the bloc’s social democrats believe the foreign affairs post should go to someone on the left, and preferably a woman.
Her allies in the Italian government defend her stance on Russia, with undersecretary for EU Affairs Sandro Gozi arguing that Italy’s position on Russia is based on “common sense” and is in line with the EU’s overall position of maintaining dialogue.
While the eastern European sceptics look unlikely to block Mogherini, she could face opposition in the European Parliament, according to reports. Many opponents of Mogherini are looking to Bulgarian European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva as an alternative.