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Interview: A feminist foreign policy? Entretien with Federica Mogherini

In April, the team of La Voix du Collège in collaboration with SAGE and Burst the Bubble had the pleasure to meet the woman that would then become the new Rector of the College: Federica Mogherini. We talked feminist foreign policy, empowerement of women in the EU, and experience of teaching at the College.


Do you think there is such a thing as feminist foreign policy? If so, do you think that the European Union has one?


I personally never use the word “feminist”, but for sure there is a foreign policy that focuses on the empowerment of women and girls, and it’s very much needed today. Women, in particular in mediation and conflicts prevention, bring a specific viewpoint in foreign policy. So, for sure it exists, even if I don’t call it that way.

The European Union has many elements in its foreign policy that empower women. I was particularly proud and honored when we promoted with the former foreign minister of Canada, Chrystia Freeland, the first ever meeting of all the women foreign ministers in the world. We had different backgrounds, agendas and political ideas, but it was extremely easy and always constructive to talk and to work together. It was probably two of the most fascinating and amazing days of my mandate.


How was it to have one of the most high-ranked positions in the Juncker Commission as a woman?


For me it was a responsibility. But there were also many women commissioners, colleagues, very strong advocates for women’s rights. We never paid too much attention to the hierarchy among us, but rather on team work. The pressure I could feel from time to time didn’t came so much from being a woman, but from the fact that I was the youngest of the entire Commission until almost the last year.





Following on that question, how do you think the fact of having women in the positions of power shapes EU’s Foreign Policy?



Generalizing is always wrong, but experience tells us that when women are involved in Foreign Policy there’s more chance to achieve agreements, and they last longer. I believe enormously in empowering women and girls, in particular in peace processes and mediation. I have seen this in so many conflicts, starting with Syrian women. They can have the most different backgrounds in life - religious, political, geographical… - but they will always consider first and foremost what kind of impact a decision, or lack of decision, has on people’s lives. This attention to what happens on the ground, at the community level, is precious to find solutions, to implement them and to make them resist the test of time.


Experience also tells us that women tend to focus on identifying practical solutions, rather than on blaming those who are responsible for a crisis or a stalemate. They are generally more inclined to find the way out, build common ground, overcoming pride and personal egos and building win – win solutions.

And then there is naturally the attention to be given to women and girls’ rights, which in itself is a foreign policy priority. If we don’t empower girls in the whole world, and particularly in some continents, there is no way out of conflicts and poverty.


As a woman, did you have to face certain challenges in politics in Italy, and then later in the EU, as High Representative?



Well, my main challenge was the state of the world and of international relations, and this is a challenge I would have had if I were a man as well.


But it’s true that I was 40 when I became foreign minister in Italy, so I was at the time the youngest Italian foreign minister ever. I realized that the combination of gender and age, being a relatively young woman, was too much for some to digest. I often felt that I was perceived as an alien in the system, exactly because of this double challenge I posed to the established image of those we are used to see in positions of responsibility – men, over 60, and let me add white. We still have a long way to go to fully accept the diversity of our societies and benefit from it, in terms of age, gender, or ethnicity. It’s a waste of human capital, on top of being an injustice.

In Italy, not many women have been in positions of responsibility, and we had never had relatively young foreign ministers. I often felt I had to demonstrate additional quality in my work, a familiar feeling for many women.


When I moved to Brussels, I had the impression that my relatively young age was the main issue. But I simply decided that I would try to turn this element of criticism into a positive factor. The day I was nominated as High Representative, during the press conference I gave together with Donald Tusk and Herman Van Rompuy, I stated that that choice could have opened the way for a new generation to come on stage, helping to address the generational issue that is still present in the institutions.

It has worked to a certain extent, and for sure I have been naturally inclined to focus on youth and women empowerment throughout my mandate – and beyond. And today you do see around the world quite a good number of women in power, and a new generation of leaders that is emerging.


What factors do you think explain the fact that in the structures of the European External Action Service there are much less women on higher positions than in administrative positions?


This is one of the issues that I have been working since arriving to Brussels, with Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of the EEAS, who for sure would define herself as a strong feminist. And there have been some improvements in the last years. There are two specific points here.


The first issue is that the EEAS relies on professionals that come partially from the EU institutions themselves, and partially from the diplomatic services of the Member States. And Member States are themselves struggling with the same issue of including and promoting more women in their diplomatic services. As a result, Member States do not always feel that they are in the position of encouraging their women diplomats to continue their career in the European service.

Sometimes, I only had men candidates for a position. And obviously, the choice is always based on merit and on which candidate has the profile that is more adequate for that specific position. More women candidates you have, more likely it is that one of them has the right profile. This is why I have always directly encouraged women both in the European institutions and in the diplomatic services of Member States, from the lowest possible levels upwards, to join the EEAS.


Secondly, there is the career factor. How much our systems are apt to support women in their careers, make them grow, and get the most out of their skills. This is not an issue specific to the EEAS, it relates to all diplomatic services in Europe, and unfortunately to almost all institutions – national, European, international. And it is something on which we all must work. Some men foreign ministers are smartly putting the issue of women empowerment high in the foreign policy agenda of their own countries. I think that this is the real way to tackle the issue. We need to have not only women working on women empowerment, or on equal pay, but to mobilize men. This is the new frontier of gender equality.


Vous savez que le Collège d’Europe est une institution bilingue, alors on va continuer l’interview en français. Qu’est ce qui peut expliquer selon vous la sous-représentation des femmes dans les délégations de l’Union européenne, et comment l’Union peut améliorer cette situation.


C’est le même problème dont on parlait, c’est-à-dire de candidatures limitées de femmes. Au niveau de la procédure de sélection pour les délégations, souvent, la short-list finale n’est composée que d’hommes.


La solution est d’encourager les EM à présenter et soutenir des candidatures féminines pour les positions de chefs de délégation, aussi que pour d’autres postes de responsabilité dans les délégations. Et de continuer à encourager et soutenir les femmes qui ont déjà commencé leurs carrières dans les institutions européennes, de présenter leurs candidatures pour les delegations.


J’espère vraiment qu’il y aura de plus en plus de candidatures féminines, parce que j’ai vu durant mes cinq années que les femmes chefs de délégation y font un travail remarquable, et parfois dans des pays très difficiles.


As far as we know, a large part of your cabinet was formed by women: was it a choice? Did you experience such « feminine teams » in other Cabinets at the Commission?



I never noticed how many women and men we had in the cabinet, our selection was based on the qualifications of the candidates and we were looking for as much diversity as possible in terms of backgrounds, nationality, gender, languages… Then there are basic rules in terms of gender representation in all cabinets, but we never had to even check if we were compliant….


Very often the delegation I travelled with was composed exclusively of women, both from my cabinet and the EEAS, and sometimes this was taken as a political statement. It was not: one shouldn’t be surprised, as no one is surprised when there’s a delegation of mostly men. I hope one day this will not even be noticed.


Have you observed during the five years of the Juncker Commission, evolutions regarding women’s place in European societies and in the European Institutions? If so, are they positive evolutions or backlashes in terms of rights?


Inside the EU Institutions I see positive trends, at all levels. I have been extremely happy and proud to see the first ever woman President of the Commission. I hope he attention Von der Leyen is paying to gender issues and to the presence of women at all levels will be a game changer.

In society, in Europe and in the world, there are trends that worry me. For instance, even the reference to gender has become taboo in certain debates and resolutions in the UN system, due to backlashes that have taken place in some countries. Some statements and policies that were considered consensual just a few years ago, today are extremely controversial.

I have the impression that part of our societies, and especially the younger generation, is more aware of equality, and the role and power of women in all aspects of life.


But there is a part of society that is clearly going backwards. This is clearly visible with the increasing number of cases of violence against women.

Political leadership has a responsibility on the backwards movement: the language that is used, the stories that are told, even the body language, are not neutral. Men in position of responsibility have a double responsibility to show that respect and support for women to play their full role in society is the real smart choice, and that strength doesn’t encompass violence or discrimination, on the contrary.


Are there elements in the Common Foreign and Security Policy that enable the EU to lead as a model for women’s empowerment and leadership?


Yes. There is something very specific that the EU is currently doing and can do even more in the future. I am extremely positive about the potential of these instruments.

One of them is what I mentioned briefly before, the capacity that the EU has through its foreign policy, delegations and its other policies and instruments to support women in conflict; not only as victims but as agents of mediation and peacebuilding. For me, this is the key to solve most of the crises of our times.


I mentioned already the work done with the Syrian women, and similar programs are run in Afghanistan, Yemen, and many more conflict areas. I will always remember for example the meeting that I had with 300 women, leaders, in Central African Republic – one of the countries most devastated by conflict. Each of them puts so much passion and energy and determination, across the country, in the work for reconciliation and for the implementation of the peace agreement. My constant thought has always been this: if you can empower these women, these girls, half or more of the problems in the world would be gone. And this is what the EU can do: support financially, technically, in terms of training, women mediators, women community leaders, women in civil society, …


Right now, all over the world, all the political attention and economic means are employed to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. How do you think will this affect gender equality policies?



It is difficult to say right now. We now learn the value of our national health systems: we call nurses and doctors our heroes now, and that is correct. I hope that the day after this virus will be gone, we will still remember that the welfare state needs to be protected, and that the support to the health workers will stay. Many of those health workers are women, and I hope that their role will be aknowleged, when this will be over. The same counts for scientists, that are often women - very poorly paid and with impossible working hours, without the public recognition they deserve. On the other side, women in times of economic crisis are the ones that are more exposed to the risk of unemployment, and I see the serious risk of going back to a division of labor where men go to work and women take care of the family and the housework. This would be dramatic, not just for women but for our societies as a whole.


Then there is another element: the need for international cooperation. The lesson to be learned is that pandemics have no nationality, no race and no gender- our bodies are equally exposed. We can tackle this only through international collaboration. Women in the public sphere normally work more for cooperation than for confrontation. I hope that this can be an opportunity for women to make their voice heard more, on the global stage.


Pour la dernière partie de cette interview, on va parler de votre rôle de professeur au Collège d’Europe cette année. 
Quelle a été votre expérience d’enseignement au Collège d’Europe jusque maintenant (avec ou sans les défis de Webex), et est-ce que c’est quelque chose que vous vouliez faire depuis longtemps ?


J’ai adoré cette expérience. Je dois avouer que quand j’ai fini mes études de sciences po à la Sapienza à Rome, j’avais une forte envie de faire une carrière universitaire et de continuer mes études, et puis la politique m’a amenée autre part.


Donc pour moi c’était un vrai privilège de pouvoir enseigner au Collège d’Europe cette année. Il est vrai que je n’ai pas une approche traditionnellement académique, mais partager l’expérience que j’ai eu le privilège de vivre, a été une occasion extraordinaire pour moi et j’espère aussi pour mes étudiants.



J’ai un seul regret, l’impact de la pandémie sur la possibilité d’échanger davantage avec les étudiants, ce qui est pour moi le coté plus intéressant de cette expérience. J’espère pouvoir le faire plus à partir de l’année prochain…


Par rapport à ce que vous disiez sur le fait que vous avez un point de vue un peu plus pratique sur la matière que vous enseignez, est-ce que vous diriez que les perspectives sur la politique étrangère sont fondamentalement différentes quand on l’enseigne d’un point de vue académique dans une université ou quand on le pratique d’un point de vue concret, par exemple à la Commission ?


Oui je pense que les points de vue sont différents, mais complémentaires. 
Au Collège en particulier, nous avons la chance d’avoir un mélange parfait d’académiques et de professionnels qui travaillent dans ou avec les institutions. Cela donne d’un côté une base extrêmement solide du point de vue théorique et académique, sans quoi on risque de se retrouver perdu, sans direction, surtout dans des moments d’instabilité globale comme maintenant. Et de l’autre côté, il est important de garder une connexion avec la réalité des choses, le côté pratique, la vitesse, parfois aussi les frustrations et les erreurs, les imperfections de la vie réelle.


Interview conducted by Nerea Alonso Moreno, Madeleine Chauvard, Justus Kiikeri, Anna Kompatscher and Clara Muller via Webex on the 6th of April 2020. Special thanks to Federica Mogherini for accepting the interview and to Carsten Gerards for helping to organize it.

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