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The EU’s wild card

In a union built on diplomacy, foreign minister Josep Borrell’s undiplomatic language has caused a stir - yet he has made more progress than his predecessors

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy arrives at the extraordinary special EU summit about Ukraine, Energy and Defence. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Josep Borrell’s title sounds diplomatic – officially, he is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy – but the language was not. Last month, the 75-year-old Catalonian who is in effect the EU’s foreign secretary declared that while Europe was “a garden… most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”

The remarks were widely criticised and brought accusations of racism from the United Arab Emirates, which certainly has no jungles but equally few freedoms for women, the LGBT community, journalists or free elections – the norm in Europe. Borrell later apologised – sort of – in a blog post in which he claimed that “some have misinterpreted the metaphor as ‘colonial Euro-centrism’”. Yet he then doubled down on it, continuing to argue that world politics was beset by disorder, while implying that Europe was an oasis of calm.

The controversy followed on the heels of another one sparked by Borrell’s blunt language – his claim a week earlier that Russian forces would be “annihilated” if Moscow used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. And just before that, at a conference for ambassadors of EU countries, he chided them for not being proactive enough, especially before Vladimir Putin’s invasion. 

“Sometimes, I knew more of what was happening somewhere by reading the newspapers than reading your reports,” he said. “I should be the best-informed guy in the world.” Calling on his audience to “send a telegram, a cable, a mail – quickly,” he then called the assembled diplomats patronising. “We think that we know better what is in other people’s interests. We underestimate the role of emotions and the persisting appeal of identity politics,” he said.

All of this was enough for Ursula von der Leyen’s spokesperson to be forced to declare that the European Commission president still had confidence in Borrell, while he told a press conference that in his job “every week is very tense, so from time to time something erupts”.

So who is Josep Borrell, why does the EU need a foreign secretary and why is he so evidently frustrated with what he sees before him? Borrell is not a smooth-tongued diplomat, for sure. Nor is he a typical Catalan socialist. He hates the ultra-nationalism, secessionism and separatism of Catalonian politicians who have embraced the nationalist identitarian ideologies that have arisen in Europe – Scotland, northern Italy (Padania), or the Sinn Fein-IRA clamour to deny the right of Northern Ireland Brits to stay British.

Earlier this year Borrell told EU defence ministers, “Thank God Zelensky isn’t the type of leader that flees hidden in a car”. It was a rude, brutal insult aimed at his lifelong political arch-enemy, Carles Puigdemont. After organising an illegal plebiscite on independence, Catalonia’s regional president left behind his fellow separatists, who ended up in jail while Puigdemont enjoys a comfortable life in Brussels.

Borrell is like Robin Cook in Britain or Germany’s Joschka Fischer, who became their nation’s foreign ministers despite never curbing their tongues or giving up passionately held beliefs. 

Fifteen years ago, after the Treaty of Lisbon, Europe’s national leaders, including Tony Blair, decided the EU needed to raise its profile as a global player. The answer was to create a new senior position, on a par with the presidents of the commission, the Council of Ministers and the European parliament. Hence the European External Action Service (EEAS) came into being, a sort of EU foreign office with embassies in most capitals around the world. The high representative is its chief. But really, is there an EU foreign policy? And if there is, does anybody care about it?

The EU is perhaps the global centre for political trade-offs, and so it goes with the appointment of senior personnel. This century the centre-right European People’s Party has always held the top EU job – president of the commission – and the president of the council has always been a liberal rightist. That’s why the left, the Party of European Socialists (PES), got to nominate the foreign policy chief. I represented Labour at the time on the executive of the PES when the new structure was set up, and I nudged them to propose David Miliband, who was UK foreign secretary at the time.

It was pretty clear Labour was going to lose under Gordon Brown and I thought Miliband, who had impressed European foreign ministers with his sharp mind and grasp of policy, would be ideal. At last the UK would have someone at the top of the EU decision-making tree. Alas, Miliband turned down the chance, and after predictably failing to be supported by Labour MPs as the party’s new leader to succeed Gordon Brown, went off to work for a New York NGO.

Instead, Brown sent Lady Catherine Ashton, a Labour peer. She was calm, methodical and a hard worker. She was in post during the Arab spring and was the EU’s top representative at the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal. Ashton was succeeded by Federica Mogherini, Italy’s former foreign minister.

The third high representative, Borrell, was previously Spain’s foreign minister, leader of the Spanish Socialist Party and president of the European parliament. In short, Borrell is a highly experienced, political heavyweight.

David Mathieson, an aide to Robin Cook when he was UK foreign secretary, knows the Spanish Socialist Party better than any other Brit. Of Borrell, he says: “As a former aeronautical engineer and mathematician by training, Borrell understands the importance of getting the details right within the big picture. He was a minister under Felipe González – Spain’s socialist prime minister from 1982 to 1996, and later elected as leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) by party members. He is best known for the passion he brings to politics.

“Nowhere has this been more evident than in his native Catalonia, where he has displayed tremendous courage in facing down militant nationalists in the region. His arguments then as now are based not simply against the fragmentation of Spain but against the fragmentation of Europe.”

Borrell was briefly leader of the Spanish Socialist Party after the 16-year premiership of González ended in 1996 and the conservative José Maria Aznar took over. Borrell came to London in 1998 to seek inspiration from Tony Blair’s New Labour. He was urged to make his peace with the right wing press, to distance himself from the González years, and to reform Spain’s welfare system, which is family based and utterly different from Britain’s post-1945 welfare state. I warned him the EU’s next task was enlargement to take in poor, post-dictatorship countries in eastern Europe, much as Europe had opened the door to former dictatorships such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, riddled with poverty and corruption at the time.

Poor Borrell could see all the EU money now being shared with much poorer countries than Spain and was not happy. Twenty years ago he fell victim to Spanish Socialist Party in-fighting and his hopes of inheriting the González mantle faded. He went into European parliamentary politics but came back to Spain as a successful, forceful foreign minister when the socialists entered a long period of power in 2016. He was an easy choice for the European socialists to be the EU foreign policy chief in 2019.

Borrell is fluent in Catalan, Spanish, French and English. He has one of France’s top international policy intellectuals, Zaki Laïdi, as his senior adviser. Laïdi, a trade and foreign affairs specialist, former adviser to Pascal Lamy and holder of the Légion d’honneur, is a professor at Science Po, the top Paris university. But despite this abundance of experience and intellectual heft, Borrell has been unable to forge a distinctive European foreign policy. 

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a direct assault on Europe. Now, having been pushed out of Kherson and wanting to show he is not yet finished, Putin is targeting civilians. He is using cruise missiles to destroy the power plants that supply electricity to Ukraine’s 44 million people, on the eve of a freezing winter.

The thesis of the globalisation ultra-liberals – the Davos elites – that increased trade flows would inevitably help to spread democracy and human rights has been proven wrong. China and India are not interested in human rights, nor is Erdogan in Turkey and still less the Gulf states like Qatar or Saudi Arabia, which the democratic world has to crawl to because of its dependence on fossil fuels.

Europe, however, is interested – and in the face of this ideological headwind, Borrell is trying to get the EU’s 140 embassies around the world to react. This is not easy. EU diplomats, like those of the UK, are rarely good at assessing domestic politics. But while Borrell’s demand that EU diplomats sharpen up their act is well-intentioned, the problem he faces is that Europe’s national governments all rate their grasp of policy much higher than that of Brussels. History suggests that is not the case.

After Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, his annexation of Crimea in 2014, and his murder of Russians on British soil, it should have been clear to everyone what he was. But for 15 years European leaders read him wrong. Angela Merkel blocked all efforts to contain, let alone confront, Putin. She was leader of what Germans call Putinversteher – Putin understanders – and there were plenty of those in other European nations, notably France and Italy. The ruling party in Britain, both before and after Brexit, rolled out the red carpet for the oligarchs and even accepted their political donations.

In a sense, these political calculations were understandable. Germany and other countries wanted Russian gas. But Borrell saw better than most that the driving force of EU foreign policy remained the nation state. That has been made clear in Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis – the wars across South Asia, Syria and Libya and, in the last decade, the withering of hope under autocratic regimes in Africa have pushed millions of refugees and migrants towards the EU. This mass migration has stirred up an ugly nationalist identity politics across Europe, from Poland and Hungary in the East to Sweden and France in the West, Italy and Spain in the South. 

That refugee question has been made more acute by Putin’s war in Ukraine. But while Boris Johnson and Liz Truss organised photoshoots for themselves in Kyiv with President Zelensky, Borrell was working to get the 140 UN member states to condemn the invasion. The EU has been far more generous in opening up to Ukrainian refugees, in contrast to the anti-refugee ideology of the Tory home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman.

And there lies the problem – the larger European states think they know better than the bureaucrats in Brussels. At the beginning of the century, Europe intervened to end the decades of slaughter in the Balkans. But when Slobodan Milošević was defeated, key national governments in Europe, including Spain, ended up appearing to side with his aide, Aleksandar Vučić, who still rules in Serbia. And even now, the nation states of Europe, either in the EU or the Council of Europe, refuse to adopt a common line or take common action against a rogue state leader like Putin.

The EU remains a partnership of nation states, content to share some decisions, mainly on technical regulatory matters, and to adopt liberal policies on trade, movement of citizens and the protection of data. But Europe is not yet willing to agree on a real foreign policy to stand up to the Kremlin, or to promote its values in China, India or the Arab world.

All foreign policy is work in progress. Borrell has made more progress than his two predecessors. But Europe has still not decided to be a global player. Its member states won’t let that happen.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister for Europe. He writes on European policy and politics

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