BRUSSELS (AP) -- European Union leaders on Saturday picked Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, to become the 28-nation bloc's top diplomat for the next five years.
The decision comes as the crisis at the EU's eastern border pitting Ukraine against Russia poses one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for the bloc in decades.
"Federica Mogherini will be the new face of the European Union in our day-today dealings with our partners in the world," outgoing EU summit chairman Herman Van Rompuy said. Incumbent EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, whose term ends in October, has been a frequent interlocutor for U.S. secretaries of state and chairs the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
Mogherini, a 41-year-old center-left politician, has been Italy's foreign minister only since February, drawing criticism that she lacks experience. A first attempt to secure Mogherini's nomination in June failed amid resistance from eastern European leaders.
Addressing the criticism, Mogherini said she will draw on her experience as foreign minister of a Group of Seven country and her past experience as lawmaker.
"I think the institutional experience is very important -- I have some -- but I also think that the experience that one gains through the work in political life and civil society is also of value," she told reporters.
The EU leaders, Van Rompuy said, are "convinced that she will prove a skillful and steadfast mediator, negotiator and defender of Europeans place in the world."
The highly visible job as EU foreign policy chief entails flying across the world and hobnobbing with the great and powerful to deal with anything from the fighting in eastern Ukraine to the crises in the Middle East.
However, the EU's top diplomat often has had little leeway because the bloc's member nations jealously guarded foreign policy as a national matter, leaving the foreign policy chief the role to hammer out compromise positions.
Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Brussels, said earlier this week the new EU foreign policy chief "has neither the battalions nor the budget to single-handedly make foreign policy," but must do a better job than Ashton at coordinating the EU's different departments and mustering the courage to oppose powerful member states when necessary.
"The EU needs a unified foreign policy," he said.
Mogherini vowed she will work relentlessly to promote European projects on the international stage, while fighting off crises or seeds of discord that could undermine the bloc's success.
"We are a dream come true, having to be careful that the dream doesn't turn into a nightmare," she said.
The EU leaders also elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to succeed European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in December as EU summit chairman and behind-the-scenes broker of compromises among national leaders.
The 57-year-old Tusk, a historian and talented speaker, has led Poland's center-right coalition government since 2007, overseeing continuous economic growth.
In Poland, leaders from across the political spectrum expressed pride in Tusk's appointment, saying it was in recognition of the country's economic success and position in Europe during a time of economic crisis elsewhere on the continent.
But Tusk's new job means a new prime minister must be selected. Parliamentary Speaker Ewa Kopacz and Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak are among possible successors.
To make the change, Tusk will need to resign and dismiss his Cabinet in the coming weeks to pave the way for President Bronislaw Komorowski to name a new prime minister who will be tasked with composing a new government team from the current ruling coalition.
Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed reporting.
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