ROME Federica Mogherini is the front runner to be nominated on Wednesday as the European Union's new foreign policy chief for five years, even though the 41-year-old has only been Italy's foreign minister since February.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tapped the career politician for the job based on her experience as one of his center-left Democratic Party's leading foreign policy wonks, although critics question her strategic depth.
Some cynics in Brussels say that if she gets the job, it will be because the big member states' foreign ministers want to keep their own grip firmly on key foreign policy issues such as relations with Russia over Ukraine.
One of a group of young women in Renzi's cabinet, Mogherini is one of the ministers closest to the premier. In a party where his drive for renewal still face some resistance, she is completely loyal.
Diplomats say Renzi has campaigned hard for her with fellow leaders, not least because the role would also make her first vice-president of the executive European Commission, giving her some say on EU economic policy as well as foreign affairs.
In office, she has faced a delicate balancing act of joining EU criticism of Russia over the Ukraine crisis while taking care not to offend one of Italy's main energy suppliers and export markets.
Perceptions among some central and eastern EU members that she has taken too conciliatory a line with Russia in the standoff over Ukraine could hurt her chances at the summit - although no Italian foreign minister would realistically have criticized Moscow too sharply given Italy's dependence on Russian gas.
She has also faced entrenched resistance to attempts to overhaul the bureaucracy of the Farnesina, the Italian Foreign Ministry.
Officials who have worked with her say she is conscientious, hard working and has exceptionally sharp political instincts, but her lack of foreign policy experience in government is often held against her.
Coming after Britain's Catherine Ashton, the first High Representative to head a new EU External Action Service, whose own lack of experience was often criticized, Mogherini's prospects could be hampered by a push for a more seasoned diplomat.
"There will definitely be questions there, especially after the experience with Catherine Ashton, who faced a lot of opposition," said one member of Italy's foreign policy establishment, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other names in contention if Mogherini is blocked include Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, regarded as a hardliner on Russia, and Bulgaria's Kristalina Georgieva, the current EU commissioner for development.
Mogherini graduated from Rome's Sapienza University with a degree in political science and a thesis on Islamism that she completed during studies in France.
Proficient in English and French, she was elected to parliament for the first time in 2008, joining the lower house committee on foreign affairs. In her climb up the party ladder, she held a series of foreign policy positions until claiming the group's top foreign policy job last year.
"Even when she was 25, she was focused on foreign policy," said Luca Bader, a PD official who has worked with her for many years. "She's very sober and serious, not picturesque or colorful."
Outside politics, she is fond of the United States and has said she might one day be interested in working there
(Editing by Paul Taylor Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)