BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland and the Baltic states are uneasy about Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini’s bid to be European Union foreign policy chief, concerned that she may be soft on Russia, but look unlikely to block her, diplomats said on Monday.
Officials of the four countries declined to comment in public on their reservations about the appointment, due to be debated at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
But Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite made clear the former Soviet Baltic states are looking for the successor to Britain’s Catherine Ashton to develop a firm common line with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine.
“Our main principle is that the person who will be appointed to the foreign policy position has to at least try to be neutral in regard to various differing opinions, and coordinate opinions of everyone - not [just] provide a narrow or very controversial position, especially on Ukraine,” she told reporters in Vilnius.
Baltic diplomats said Mogherini, who has only been foreign minister since February, lacked experience of eastern Europe - the EU’s biggest current geopolitical challenge - and had sent some questionable signals during the Ukraine crisis.
They complained that Rome had been reluctant to impose EU sanctions on Moscow over its behavior in Ukraine - an accusation denied by a source in the Italian Foreign Ministry.
“We have always voted in line with the rest of the EU in support of the sanctions,” the source said.
Opposition to her candidacy was “part of the normal process for a candidate in a complex landscape”, he said, adding that Italy’s position toward Russia had been in practice very similar to that of EU powers Germany and France.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said the 10 former communist central and eastern European countries that joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007 want at least one of the top EU jobs to go to someone from their region.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been lobbying fellow leaders actively in support of Mogherini, 41, a close Socialist ally, making phone calls to several of his peers at the weekend, aides said.
Renzi’s top official on EU policy, Undersecretary for European Affairs Sandro Gozi, defended her against criticism from eastern Europe.
“Federica Mogherini has defended the Italian position and maintained always, even in the most difficult moments, a line of dialogue open with Moscow, which is a position that is in line with the European Union, and in my mind it is a position that demonstrates great common sense,” he said in comments he published on his own Facebook page.
A Baltic official said it was unfortunate that Mogherini had chosen to make her first visit on as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency to Moscow.
In Warsaw, Polish officials declined public comment. Poland has pushed its own foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, for the EU foreign policy job, but he is seen by some west European governments as too confrontational with Russia.
People close to Poland’s governing coalition said Mogherini’s stance on Russia was a problem for them.
“Bearing in mind Italy’s position on the Ukrainian crisis and the generally soft attitude of Italy towards Russia it will be very difficult for us to support ... Mogherini,” said a member of parliament for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civil Platform party, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An EU diplomat in Brussels, reflecting the mood among central and east European countries, said: “We need someone with gravitas. Mogherini is not that person. She is a repetition of Ashton. And we need someone else. She lacks experience.”
However, the misgivings were unlikely to result in her candidacy being blocked, diplomats said, asking not to be named.
One eastern official said his country was “not opposing (Mogherini), but not happy”.
Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Aija Krutaine in Riga, David Mardiste in Tallinn, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Christian Lowe and Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw, Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall