Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s former foreign policy chief, is at the center of a cronyism storm over plans to appoint her as rector at a prestigious EU-funded college.
The Italian former foreign minister has signaled she wants the top job at the College of Europe, a training ground for future EU officials based in the Belgian city of Bruges that also has a campus in Poland.
Her candidacy — and its apparent support in high places — has prompted an outcry among alumni and professors of the College and EU officials. They complain Mogherini is not qualified for the post, does not meet the criteria laid down for it and entered the race months after the deadline of last September 30.
They are pointing the finger of blame at Herman Van Rompuy, the former president of the European Council and ex-prime minister of Belgium who now leads the College’s administrative council, who stands accused of discarding other well-qualified candidates to push for Mogherini.
Many fear Mogherini’s candidacy will be rubber-stamped at a meeting of key professors and staff on Thursday, making her all but certain to be confirmed in the post by the administrative council in June.
“It looks like the College has put star power and networking prowess above academic rigor and experience” — Michiel van Hulten, a College of Europe graduate
“This is a bit like making someone who’s never learnt to fly the captain of a big passenger airplane,” said Michiel van Hulten, a College of Europe graduate, speaking in a personal capacity.
“It looks like the College has put star power and networking prowess above academic rigor and experience,” he said. “That is obviously disastrous from a reputational point of view.”
“An academic institution should lead the way in transparent and accountable procedures,” van Hulten added.
A group of 15 Green Members of the European Parliament wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday to express concerns about the case.
They said that the apparent support for Mogherini from both von der Leyen and Van Rompuy despite the candidate’s “lack of experience” as required in the original job ad was “to the detriment of both equality of opportunity in recruitment and the independence of the institution.”
Last year, according to people familiar with the process, about 30 candidates applied for the rectorship of the College of Europe, which offers master’s degrees in various subjects for fees of €25,000 per year covering tuition, board and lodging.
But according to several college professors and EU officials who are graduates of the College, Van Rompuy was not satisfied with the candidates and sought additional names.
“He dismissed all of them for Mogherini,” one EU official and College alumnus said, adding that five “high-level” candidates were interviewed in November last year and “haven’t heard from the College yet.”
“It is a very unusual practice in the academic world,” the College alumnus said. “If candidates are not considered good, there is another call, you don’t replace them with a former commissioner who is looking for an occupation.”
Asked about Mogherini’s candidacy, Van Rompuy said the Italian politician is “not yet appointed,” and a final decision will be taken in June. “For deontological reasons, I will not make any comments before the final decision has been taken,” he said in an email.
Angela O’Neill, the College’s director of communications, also declined to comment on Mogherini’s application or the allegations surrounding it. “The College of Europe is in the process of appointing a new rector. Once this process is completed the name of the successful candidate will be announced via our media channels,” O’Neill wrote in an email. She said the College would issue a press release on “the progress of the procedure” on Friday.
Mogherini did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
The original job posting said candidates should demonstrate “substantial academic qualities in the field of European studies, a proven experience of the administration and management of an academic structure of some complexity, and should be able to combine the pursuit of academic excellence at international level with sound budgetary management.”
Mogherini “does not comply with the criteria the College of Europe has set for the position,” Jon Worth, a visiting professor at the College, wrote in a blog post. “She has never run an academic structure (complex or not).”
Mogherini has one degree, in political science from Rome’s La Sapienza University. She later became an MP and served as Italian foreign affairs minister for eight months.
Mogherini is a visiting professor in the College’s EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Department. In her previous EU role, she gained a high international profile, headed the EU’s External Action Service and is seen as one of the architects behind the Iran nuclear deal in mid-2015. If appointed, she would be the first woman to be rector of the College of Europe.
Worth published an open letter expressing “concern and regret about the way the procedure to recruit a new Rector of the College has been handled and communicated.”
The institution traditionally appoints rectors with PhDs from well-known European or Ivy League universities who built their careers within the College. Jörg Monar, the current rector, previously headed the College’s Department of Political and Administrative Studies. His predecessor Paul Demaret was the College’s director of legal studies before serving as rector from 2003 to 2013.
Earlier this month, Worth published an open letter expressing “concern and regret about the way the procedure to recruit a new Rector of the College has been handled and communicated.” (The letter currently has 40 signatories, most of whom state they are alumni of the College.)
“What we say in this letter is no commendation of or rejection of any candidate for the position,” the signatories declare. “It is instead a call for the College of Europe to abide by the very values it expects of its teachers and its students, including a respect for due process and the rule of law, and a commitment to transparency and accountability.”
Mogherini, who ended her five-year term as EU foreign policy chief and as a vice president of the European Commission in November of last year, received permission from the Commission last month to apply for the job. Her request for permission included a letter signed by Van Rompuy.
As the Commission is one of its principal funders, the College said it would transfer the power to sign its grant application to the Commission and any document related to it from rector to treasurer if Mogherini is appointed.
However, that assurance raised questions about how much Mogherini could be involved in managing the budget of the College — one of the rector’s key tasks.
“She will then be recruited only to have authority, make speeches, and oversee public relations,” the EU official and College alumnus said. “But the president of the administrative council, who is always a high-level politician and has all the resources, already takes over those tasks.”