By the Blouin News Politics staff

Who will step in as Europe’s top diplomat?

by in Europe.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton speaks during a press conference at the Intercontinental hotel on April 17, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton on April 17, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Europe is gearing up to fill one of the bloc’s most important roles: the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, or more simply put, the E.U.’s next foreign policy head. The choice will be one of the first major actions taken by the European Commission since former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker took over as commissioner amid a heated opposition campaign spearheaded by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Now, Juncker has to fill vacant commission seats, starting with the high profile position of foreign affairs chief. For an idea of the scope of the job, look at the trajectory of current foreign relations head Catherine Ashton during her five-year term, which had her scurrying to mediate an unprecedented rapprochement between historic rivals Serbia and Kosovo, as well as a historic deal between Iran and the West over its disputed nuclear program.

VISUAL CONTEXT: The European Commission

Via: UNESCO/D@dalos

Via: UNESCO/D@dalos

The race had been largely invisible, with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini pegged as the early frontrunner. But despite support by an enthusiastic Matteo Renzi, as well as Socialist leaders such as French President François Hollande, an initial vote in July stalled with some states questioning Mogherini’s foreign policy competence. (The Italian minister has been in office less than six months.) Polish foreign affairs minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who emerged as Mogherini’s main rival, has in contrast served in his current position since 2007, and was defense minister in prior administrations. Further complicating the issue is Kristalina Georgieva, Bulgaria’s Humanitarian Aid Commissioner (and rumored to be Juncker’s preferred candidate) who also threw her hat in the ring.

Here, Russia is set to take center stage. The Baltic states, alongside Poland, are uneasy with Mogherini’s inexperience in eastern Europe and how that could shape the current stalemate with Moscow. The Italian FM has also been accused of bias on the issue, thanks to a recent trip to Russia and statements taken by many analysts to indicate a conciliatory stance on Ukraine. In contrast, the pro-American Sikorski is viewed as more likely to take a hard line when it comes to Russia. Dissent within the ranks could mean a win for Georgieva; it’s also conceivable that a late entry appears before the August 30 deadline. The commission has often seen early frontrunners rejected in favor of a lesser-known candidate perceived as more amenable to backing decisions made by the larger states.

Either way, the commission will have done little to counter the mounting criticisms about the E.U.’s so-called “democratic deficit” – i.e., its opaque and complex methods and reported back-room wheedling — which has left many European voters resentful of the bloc’s machinations to the benefit of Euro-skeptic parties in France, Germany, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the commission looks to have skirted around a major critique leveled against it: the lack of gender parity. Although Juncker requested that member states submit female candidates for empty spots, few countries complied, leaving the number of total female nominees at two. The European Parliament – which has the power to approve or reject the commission’s choices – has threatened to reject any configuration that has less than ten women. (See the #TenOrMore social media campaign.) Which means that regardless of who steps into Ashton’s shoes, Juncker and company could be sent right back to the drawing board. Is Europe ready for round 2?