“Palm Trees in the Snow,” EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday (5 February).
“Huh?”, Lavrov said.
“Palm Trees in the Snow,” Borrell repeated, as the two men were leaving a press briefing.
Then Borrell learned Russia had just expelled three EU diplomats.
‘Palm Trees in the Snow’ is a Spanish film about Cuba which had come up earlier in the press briefing.
And that final moment, in which a baffled-sounding Borrell tried to make friends with Lavrov, despite Lavrov’s rudeness, encapsulated Friday’s events.
Russia notified Germany, Poland, and Sweden that one each of their diplomats in Moscow was “persona non grata” while Borrell and Lavrov were speaking to press, EU sources told EUobserver.
It did so on grounds they took part in “illegal” protests to free Russian opposition hero Alexei Navalny on 22 January, but timed its announcement to cause the most offence.
Borrell had gone to Moscow, on his own initiative, in the first high-level EU trip of its type in four years.
He went to hold a “strategic” dialogue, on issues such as Middle East wars, and to pass on the EU message that Navalny must be freed.
But he ended up attacking Europe’s principal ally, the US, alongside the West’s principal adversary, Russia, instead.
The EU diplomat also endorsed Russia’s ‘Sputnik V’ coronavirus vaccine – even though it has not had EU approval.
And he gave Lavrov a free pass to harangue the EU as an “unreliable partner”, while doing little on Navalny.
Borrell took the US to task for its old trade embargo and its recent counter-terrorism sanctions on Cuba, when asked about it by Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik.
The EU “strongly rejected” US sanctions, which “created a lot of difficulties for Cuban people,” Borrell said.
“I didn’t expect to talk about Cuba here in Moscow,” he added, in an aside.
“The question about Cuba is an interesting one. There’s a Spanish film called Palm Trees in the Snow and as I’m talking here, in Moscow, it’s snowing, so it made me remember,” he said.
He also endorsed Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, in ringing terms, even though it has not been approved by the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency in Amsterdam.
“I take the floor just to congratulate Russia on this success [Sputnik V]. It’s good news for the whole of mankind,” Borrell said.
He mentioned EU “concern” about Navalny’s arrest and poisoning by Russian spies.
But he dropped previous ideas to visit Navalny in prison.
He also did not mention Russia’s ongoing war in east Ukraine.
And he said nothing to counter Lavrov, when the Russian foreign minister hogged the microphone to harangue both the US and EU.
US sanctions on Cuba were “methods of colonialist oppression … invented by the United States” and copied by the EU in its sanctions on Russia, Lavrov said.
He claimed the US was persecuting supporters of former president Donald Trump and EU states were persecuting anti-government protesters, including in Catalonia, in Borrell’s home country, Spain.
And he accused EU leaders of being “deluded” and “culturally arrogant” in accusing Russia of trying to assassinate Navalny last year.
Russia’s expulsion of the three European diplomats prompted Germany and Poland to summon Russia’s ambassadors in Berlin and Warsaw for an explanation on Friday, EU sources said.
But if the defenestrations crowned Lavrov’s trolling of the EU high representative, it was not the only incident.
The Russian foreign ministry also circulated a video about policy brutality in EU states earlier on Friday.
And authorities dragged Navalny from his prison cell into a glass box in a court in Moscow on Friday morning to face nonsense charges, which could add two years to his existing three-and-a-half year sentence.
Back in Brussels, the European Commission defended Borrell’s handling of the trip, however.
His remarks on Cuba were aimed at former US president Donald Trump’s policies, an EU spokeswoman said.
Borrell had dropped previous ideas to try to visit Navalny in prison because “it would give the wrong impression that we accept the situation [Navalny’s jailing] or agree with it. We do not,” Borrell’s spokeswoman added.
That line contradicted previous EU practice, of visiting political prisoners on foreign trips, however.
The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, was also happy Borrell had gone to meet Lavrov, her spokesman said.
“I believe it has led to a frank engagement with Russian authorities”, von der Leyen’s spokesman said, before news of the diplomatic expulsions broke.
Borrell “rejected the allegations that they [the expelled EU diplomats] conducted activities incompatible with their status”, his office said in a statement later in the day.