EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has promised new sanctions on Russia and sharpened criticism of Moscow in ongoing fall-out from his “humiliating” trip.
“I will put forward concrete proposals using the right of initiative that the [EU] high representative [for foreign affairs] has,” Borrell told MEPs in the European Parliament (EP) on Tuesday (9 February).
Foreign ministers would discuss his draft blacklists when they next met, on 22 February, he noted.
“It will be for the member states to decide the [EU’s] next steps. But yes, this could include sanctions,” he said.
Russia had gone “full circle” since the fall of the Soviet Union in its return to “merciless” authoritarianism, Borrell also told MEPs.
He spoke of “deep disappointment and growing mistrust” with Moscow, which was “disconnected” from Europe “because they [the Russian elite] consider our liberal democratic system a threat”.
“I wanted to test if the Russian authorities were interested in revising the differences in our relations … the answer was clear: They aren’t,” Borrell added.
Borrell is expected to propose asset-freezes and visa-bans on Russian individuals involved in jailing opposition figure Alexei Navalny, under Europe’s new ‘Magnitsky Act’.
The act, named after a late Russian dissident, does not include “corruption” as a criterion, however.
And EU listings of minor Russian officials would fall far short of what Navalny’s associates are calling for – EU and US blacklisting of pro-Kremlin oligarchs.
Some MEPs are collecting signatures for an open letter to Borrell to retrofit corruption into the EU’s ‘Magnitsky’ measures and to implement Navalny’s ideas.
But leading EU states France and Germany want to dial down tensions with Russia instead of taking a more hawkish approach.
Borrell spoke in the EP after being roundly criticised over his visit to Moscow last Friday.
More than 80 EU deputies have signed a letter saying he should resign after the “humiliating” trip.
And several of them, such as Dutch liberal Sophie in ‘t Veld, attacked him on Tuesday.
“It is difficult to see how … [Borrell] can continue to represent the EU abroad, with his authority and credibility severely damaged”, she said, calling his visit “disastrous and ill-judged”.
“The infamous press conference sparked outrage in my group,” German centre-right MEP Michael Gahler also said.
Borrell, last Friday, smiled meekly while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov lambasted the EU as an “unreliable partner” in a press briefing.
He also walked into propaganda traps of criticising the US and promoting Russia’s coronavirus vaccine.
And Russia expelled three European diplomats while Borrell was there to belittle him further.
“It could have been better,” Borrell admitted at one point on Tuesday.
But for the most part he defended himself, saying he had had “heated” talks with Lavrov about Navalny behind closed doors and that he had been courageous in taking on the diplomatic risks the trip entailed.
“Foreign policy cannot be reduced to issuing a written statement from a safe distance [in Brussels],” Borrell said.
Russia’s behaviour was designed to divide Europe and “we should not fall into these traps”, he added.
Some MEPs also defended him.
It would have been wiser to meet Lavrov in the margins of an international event, former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski said, but added: “Let’s remember the main blame for the fiasco is on Russia. It’s Russia that was rude and perfidious to our high representative”.
France and Germany
Other EU deputies, especially the German Greens, also said it was pro-Russian EU capitals who were doing the real damage to Europe’s foreign policy.
Germany is ploughing ahead with a new Russia gas pipeline and France still wants a high-level dialogue with Moscow despite everything, they noted.
“I’m saying this not to you [Borrell] but to Berlin and Paris because that’s where the people responsible for this [fiasco] are,” German Green Sergey Lagodinsky said.
Borrell also said “the majority” of EU foreign ministers had backed his Moscow visit at their last meeting.
“Do you know how many times official delegations [from EU states] at ministerial level or above have been to Russia in the last two years? Nineteen. Nineteen times … it’s not so strange to go, it seems to be fairly normal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Borrell’s sanctions pledge and harsh words on Tuesday led some diplomats from Russia-wary EU states to hope his “humiliation” would make him an ally going forward.
But there was also a risk that the opposite might happen, an EU source said.
“There’s a risk that Borrell becomes so discouraged over Russia that he delegates it to his officials in future, and concentrates on areas where he has more experience, such as Latin America and the Middle East,” the source said.