The EU often takes great pride in exerting global influence with soft power. But after a disastrous trip to Moscow, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, is facing criticism that he repeatedly is just soft in front of geopolitical rivals.
Last April, Borrell was called before the European Parliament to answer allegations that his office had watered down a report on disinformation to appease China.
Last month, standing with the Turkish foreign minister in Brussels, Borrell failed to read out prepared remarks expressing concern about “rule of law and human rights.” Instead, he voiced concern “about the situation in Turkey from any point of view.”
On Tuesday, Borrell was back in the Parliament, trying to explain his conduct at a press conference in Moscow where he failed to push back against Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called the bloc an “unreliable partner.”
Adding further insult, Borrell learned from Twitter during a working lunch after the news conference that Russia had expelled three EU diplomats, one each from Germany, Sweden and Poland, for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny. Borrell demanded explanations and a reversal of the decision but got neither.
Borrell’s effort at self-defense in the Parliament plenary came a day after more than 70 MEPs signed a draft letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demanding his resignation or removal, calling the events in Moscow “humiliating” and citing “his failure to stand for the interests and values of the European Union.”
In his public remarks, Borrell, whose official title is high representative and vice president for foreign affairs and security policy, said the trip had accomplished his desired goal: clarifying the Kremlin was not interested in pursuing any partnership with the EU. Without offering details, he said he would now prepare a proposal for imposing new sanctions over the Navalny case.
In his closing statement, Borrell was at times combative, accusing some MEPs of misrepresenting what had happened in Moscow by saying he had failed to address Navalny’s case, which he brought up twice during the news conference. He accused other MEPs of being angry that he had traveled to Moscow at all.
“For some of you the problem seems to be that the visit happened,” he said, demanding if the lawmakers knew how many delegations had visited Russia from EU countries in the past two years.
“Nineteen,” Borrell declared, speaking confidently in his native Spanish. “Nineteen times there have been visits to Russia.” He added, “Have to go? Or don’t have to go? Or can the whole world go except the high representative? Then, why do they have one?”
Up to the task?
For some officials, the question was not about having a high representative at all, but whether Borrell is up to the task. Some MEPs who did not join in the calls for his removal expressed dismay over the handling of the Russia trip, saying they refrained from demanding his resignation so as not to further play into the Kremlin’s goal of dividing the EU.
“Borrell did not show great diplomatic skills when he visited Lavrov. It was a lost opportunity, the European Union was not well represented,” said Angelika Niebler, vice chair of the German delegation in the center-right European People’s Party group.
Niebler said it was too soon to demand a resignation but nonetheless was scathing in her criticism.
“To have let it stand without contradiction that the European Union is not a reliable partner, that is unacceptable,” she said, adding, “In any case, what Borrell delivered was not the high art of diplomacy, and I can only say: we need someone who gives us weight and a voice in foreign policy.”
At the start of the plenary debate, Michael Gahler, another conservative German MEP, said Borrell should have been prepared for the ambush he faced in Moscow and should have hit back.
“Was it not to be expected that Lavrov would produce an attack on the EU?” Gahler asked. “It would have been appropriate to address the long list of Russian misbehavior in response, and to rebuff Lavrov’s whataboutism on Latvia, Cuba and Catalonia.”
“Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine and elsewhere, not us,” Gahler continued. “Russian authorities have people murdered at home and abroad, not us. Russia secures dictators in power, not us. Things are now crystal clear. No more wishful thinking. No more appeasement.”
In Brussels, many diplomats and officials already had concerns over Borrell’s ability to manage EU foreign policy.
Borrell is a former Spanish foreign minister, leader of the country’s center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and member of parliament. He served as president of the European Parliament from July 2004 to January 2007. At age 73, Borrell is the oldest member of the von der Leyen Commission. At times, he appears to struggle with his hearing, and has difficulty following reporters’ questions during news conferences. At other times, he seems to struggle with English — though he speaks the language well, he is far more comfortable in Spanish or French.
At a news conference following a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council last month, he slipped unintentionally into Spanish in reply to a question in French, then spoke for about 25 seconds before catching himself. “I am speaking Spanish but it doesn’t matter, I’m sure there is translation, no?” he said, laughing. “Sorry, I jumped to Spanish. I don’t know why.”
The recent incidents with the China report, and especially with the Turkish foreign minister, left some EU diplomats saying they were nostalgic for Borrell’s predecessor Federica Mogherini, who they said would have been sure to speak the line expressing concerns over human rights.
Diplomats said that under Borrell’s stewardship, the Foreign Affairs Council reacts more quickly to world events, but they also complained about what can be a disjointed meeting process. One diplomat said Borrell has a “messy way to steer the conversation” — at times because he seems not to be following procedures, and at other times, the diplomat said, because “it’s unclear whether he’s listening.”
The Moscow trip, however, appeared to damage Borrell’s standing across the board, necessitating statements of support from some of his staunchest backers.
On Monday, the Commission’s chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said Borrell still had von der Leyen’s “full support,” On Tuesday, Barend Leyts, spokesman for the European Council president, said: “Charles Michel expresses his confidence in High Representative Josep Borrell.”
Peter Stano, a Commission spokesman, said Borrell had no intention of resigning and retained full confidence of the top EU leaders. “The important thing now is that the European Union draws the consequences from the visit when it comes to shaping EU-Russia relations,” Stano said.
Stano suggested questions about Borrell’s fitness were “ageist and ableist.” He also noted that for most EU officials and citizens English is a second or third language and said Borrell “makes use of all the languages he speaks to express himself and formulate his thoughts.”
Carmen Pérez, a spokeswoman for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, said: “The Spanish government fully supports the high representative of course.” Pérez called Borrell’s presentation in the European Parliament “brilliant,” adding: “He has been very eloquent explaining the reasons behind his trip.”
Iratxe García, the leader of the Socialist group in Parliament, who is Spanish, said Borrell was brave to deliver in person the EU’s message denouncing Navalny’s imprisonment. “I want to emphasize the high representative’s courage to turn out in Moscow, defend the European position, speak of human rights, speak of Navalny, and speak about issues that are currently of concern in Europe,” Garcia said.
Among diplomats and EU officials, however, there was widespread concern that Borrell’s mishandling of the Moscow trip had damaged the bloc’s standing and weakened its position, particularly vis-à-vis Washington, as Brussels prepared to work with the new Biden administration to reinvigorate transatlantic relations.
“He has managed to disappoint almost everyone, before it was only the Baltics and a few others who were in favor of further sanctions, now it’s going to be more difficult for everybody to say no,” a second EU diplomat said.
“The scene of Borrell smiling and staying there instead of walking off while Lavrov was saying that we are unreliable, that was humiliating,” the second diplomat said.
To remove Borrell from his post would require a vote by qualified majority of the heads of state and government on the European Council, as well as von der Leyen’s agreement — neither of which seem likely. But the second diplomat predicted Borrell would find himself constrained.
“He’s going to have a tighter leash, for sure on Russia,” the diplomat said.
A third diplomat said Borrell appeared to have taken part in a Kremlin diplomatic fantasy, in which Lavrov highlighted disagreements between Brussels and Washington, while also attacking the EU as hypocritical in its imposition of sanctions over the annexation of Crimea.
The third diplomat described the moment in the press conference when Borrell criticized the U.S. over its policies toward Cuba as “a sort of masochism,” adding: “There was no need. He went well beyond the best dreams of the Russians.”
Diplomats cited numerous mistakes by Borrell and his team, including allowing Lavrov to schedule the news conference between two separate working sessions — an old trick designed to prevent tough issues from being discussed in front of journalists for fear of poisoning the second meeting.
The surprise announcement of the expulsions was an especially low blow, exposing the Russians in this case as willing even to come across as ungracious hosts. “Lavrov played all the possible tricks, we were there to be his punching bag,” a fourth diplomat said.
Diplomats said they were particularly troubled by Borrell’s failure to respond to the assertion that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU officials had lied about the findings that Navalny was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent — given Lavrov had made similar statements publicly in the days leading up to Borrell’s arrival in Moscow.
“There are two possibilities, either his staff prepared him but he was too arrogant to listen to his staff or he went there utterly unprepared, ” a fifth diplomat said.
Maïa de La Baume and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.