Seeking a High Representative

Josef Janning on the key characteristics a High Representative should have.

This piece is part of a series on the casting of a new High Representative. For the full collection, click here.

The EU’s foreign and security policy and its security and defence policy are both works in progress still, and a bit of “work in regress” at the same time. The demands on the next High Representative will be high if the goals laid out in the Treaty on European Union are to be taken seriously. They would require an architect and strategist, a manager with a strong executive arm, a gifted negotiator and an excellent communicator – a personality of rather exceptional abilities who would still be willing accept the constraints on the job, to serve the interests of the 28 foreign ministers, to share external representation with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, and to take the blame when European aspirations stray from reality.

Clearly, this is not a dream job, but it must have its attractions, judging from the interest some rather prolific European foreign ministers have shown in the position. And it certainly does matter who will be chosen to succeed Baroness Ashton to interpret the role refined by the Lisbon Treaty and to head the service it established.

Among the requirements and qualifications needed for the job of High Representative, five criteria stand out, which will define the potential for success of Ashton’s successor. These criteria mostly focus on the ability to carry out the assignment, but some also apply to winning the nomination from the members of the European Council – a process that is likely to be driven by considerations largely unrelated to the demands of the position itself.

In the end, European leaders will agree on a package that tries to achieve balance between the political families, bridge the large/small divide, represent the Eurozone states and the opt-outs, and last (and in this case indeed) least ensure a reasonable gender balance. Evidently, balance will prevail over competence in the bargaining. The package will necessarily involve all key offices the heads of state and government have a say on for the next years: President of the Commission, President of the European Council (including the presidency over the Eurozone formation of the European Council), High Representative, and the permanent chair of the Eurogroup. 

Such a recruitment milieu should be anathema to Europe if the EU is ever to become a global actor driven by strategy, policy, and partnerships. Unfortunately, it is all too familiar to real EU affairs. Therefore, we at least need a debate about the next HR and his/her job description, engaging foreign ministers, members of parliament, and the media, and maybe in doing so achieve that qualifications will play at least some role in the selection process. The emphasis should be on what it takes to fill the job, and not on what it takes to be nominated.

Ambition, reputation, a strategic sense, operational skills, and resilience – these would be the key strengths a High Representative needs.

  • The world is ever more complex and moving fast. Therefore any candidate should not just bring substantial foreign policy experience to the job, but also be passionate about managing international interdependence and global power relations, even after many years in the field. With passion should come the will and ability to communicate the foreign policy challenges facing the EU. For building and nurturing interest in foreign policy and consensus, also known as good public diplomacy, is too crucial to be neglected by the face of EU foreign policy.
  • Reputation is key because it is built on previous interactions with international actors in government, business, and civil society at the highest levels. A High Representative will benefit greatly from an extensive network of personal contacts, and from respect and trust previously acquired. Ideally, the successful candidate will have been a foreign minister or prime minister of an active member state, who was engaged across a wider range of issues within and beyond the EU. 
  • Thirdly, a good HR will have to bring to the job a clear sense of strategic priorities. This implies a good reading of the current challenges to global order, a succinct understanding of the aggregated interests of the European Union (and the ways in which shared interests can be shaped), and a vision of what the EU’s combined potential could achieve. The HR also needs a good sense of where to engage the EU alongside or in support of member states, and vice versa, and the skills to build and manage coalitions within the EU. Priority areas of a strategic European foreign and security policy should be the European neighbourhood, the major actors in the global arena, and the principal fora of global governance. 
  • Next to strategic competence, strong operational skills are indispensable. The External Action Service (EEAS) is a newcomer to the institutional turf of the EU, and needs to further establish itself. The next HR needs to be much more convincing about the role and place of the service in order to reduce friction with national foreign ministries, attract high quality delegations of personnel, and to re-activate the Foreign Affairs Council as the centre-stage of EU strategic reasoning. All this is a prerequisite to achieve the most important operational demand: the effective bundling of all external instruments and portfolios of the EU under the HR’s lead. A strong candidate will make his/her acceptance of the nomination dependant on such a clustering. To achieve this would certainly be more important than to secure the HR’s role in the protocol of the EU’s external representation, even though the current quarrels between the Presidents and the HR make a mockery of the EU’s ambition to speak with one voice.
  • Finally, a strong High Representative will need resilience to cope with the oddities and indignities of acting as Europe’s foreign minister without being a foreign minister, from not having her own plane to acting on the basis of an often times fragile (and changeable) consensus among member states. And the HR needs to be able to manage the substantial egos in the Council and the EU institutions. Personal standing will frequently have to make up for lack of respect in the office. Finally, the High Representative must steadfastly resist Europe’s intrinsic affinity for naval-gazing. Our exposed and vulnerable continent cannot afford to ignore the world beyond its belly.

Once the new High Representative has been appointed, the debate will return to old patterns: some will praise the HR’s achievements given the impossible circumstances, others will lament the continued under-performance of Europe. And the High Representative and EEAS will muddle through. This why all those observing and analysing European foreign policy at least deserve a debate about what, and who, could be.

Click here to read Josef Janning's job description.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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