EU top diplomat Josep Borrell is facing calls to resign after his trip to Moscow went off the rails.
But Germany, France, and Austria risk making EU and transatlantic divisions even worse by backing Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline no matter what.
“We believe the president of the European Commission should take action, if Mr Borrell does not resign of his own accord,” Estonian centre-right MEP Riho Terras said in a letter to Commission chief Ursula von Der Leyen this weekend.
Terras invited other MEPs to cosign, saying Borrell had “caused severe damage to the reputation of the EU” and the “dignity” of his own office.
The European Parliament has no power in the matter and Terras’ letter might not gain traction.
But the unusual move showed the level of anger, especially among easterly EU states, over Borrell’s behaviour.
Borrell went to Moscow of his own accord to launch a “strategic” dialogue and call for the freeing of opposition hero Alexei Navalny.
But Russia expelled three EU diplomats for having attended pro-Navalny protests and attacked Europe as an “unreliable partner” while he was there.
And Borrell did little for Navalny, while going off-script to attack the EU’s oldest ally, the US, over its Cuba policy, and to praise Russia’s coronavirus vaccine.
Borrell took a much tougher line in his blog on Sunday, as criticism mounted.
He said he was the victim of an “aggressively-staged press conference” in Moscow and that he had learned of Russia’s EU diplomatic expulsions from “social media”.
“Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe”, Borrell said, while recommending use of targeted EU sanctions against Russian officials.
But as more details of his trip emerged, his judgment came open to question.
Borrell had asked to meet Russia’s deputy prime minister and a high-ranking security official prior to going, but Russia snubbed his proposal, in what Borrell should have seen as a warning of things to come, diplomatic sources told EUobserver.
“It was already an affront to the EU and Borrell should have cancelled his trip there and then,” a source said.
But for all that, the leaders of France, Germany, and Austria also did little to defend the EU’s “dignity” this weekend.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron said on Friday they were happy to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany despite Russia’s actions.
“My attitude towards Nord Stream 2 is unaffected by this for the present”, Merkel said, shortly after learning of Russia’s ejection of the three EU diplomats, which included a German one.
“A decision has been made [on Nord Stream 2] and I am in full solidarity,” Macron also said in a videoconference with Merkel.
A Russian ship began laying pipes the very next day on one of the project’s final segments – a 120-km link in Danish waters.
“The Fortuna pipe-laying ship …. has successfully conducted sea trials and today started pipe-laying in Danish waters,” the Russian-owned consortium that owns the pipeline told Russia’s Tass news agency on Saturday.
And Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag the next day: “I welcome that Germany’s government continues to stick with Nord Stream 2”.
The pipe was “in the interests of many European Union countries” and should not be linked to Navalny’s case, Kurz said.
If Borrell’s aside on Cuba risked irritating the US, then it was small beer compared to what Nord Stream 2 might do to transatlantic relations.
America has been trying to stop it by imposing sanctions on European firms involved in the project, on grounds it posed a strategic threat to the West.
And the US state department made clear how president Joe Biden felt about it earlier last week.
“Nord Stream 2 … [is] designed to increase Russia’s leverage over our allies and partners, and undermine[s] transatlantic security,” state department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday.
The German Greens and some in Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party have also called for it to be stopped.
And the Greens might press their views if the CDU seeks a coalition with them after elections in September.
But their voice was drowned out by the CDU establishment for now.
“The German government is following the right course,” Armin Laschet, the CDU party leader, also told Reuters on Friday.
“Business relationships and business projects that have existed for decades are one thing and serious human rights violations and our reactions to them are another”, Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s economy minister, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the divisions – on Borrell and Nord Stream 2 – indicated that Russia has become probably the most toxic issue on today’s EU and transatlantic foreign policy agenda.
“The Russians choreographed Borrell’s visit to aggravate quarrels inside the EU … Lavrov belittled Borrell,” an EU source said.
“Certain [eastern and Nordic] member states will say they told him [Borrell] not go to Moscow. He’ll defend himself. Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and Rome will back him. And Moscow will get what it wants … even deeper EU division,” the source said.