Foreign Policy Impotence Brussels Pushes Firmer Stance after Embarrassment in Moscow

After the recent humiliation of its top diplomat by Russian officials, the European Union may now be heading toward stronger measures against Moscow. Tempers are running high in Brussels, though the bloc doesn't exactly have a strong history of common foreign policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and EU High Representative Josep Borrell in Moscow on Feb. 5: Cold War vernacular

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and EU High Representative Josep Borrell in Moscow on Feb. 5: Cold War vernacular

Foto: picture alliance / dpa

Josep Borrell didn’t really need the white mask he was wearing – that’s how lonely things were for him in the European Parliament on Tuesday afternoon. The plenary hall, with room for more than 700 members of parliament, was almost empty due to the coronavirus.

A photographer took aim at the Spaniard, who has served as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for just over a year, from a distance of several meters. Borrell didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were half closed, staring into space. You could be forgiven for thinking he was just taking a little nap before what could turn out to be the most important speech of his term in office.

But for Borrell, who goes by the nickname "Pepe,” it was about damage control, perhaps even a last-ditch effort to save his job. It was also about the EU's foreign policy, whose weakness was brutally exposed by Borrell's recent visit to Moscow.

PR Disaster in Moscow

The high representative’s first trip to the Russian capital since 2017 turned into a PR disaster last week. Borrell was sitting at a working lunch with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Feb. 5 when Russian media reported on Twitter that Moscow had expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland.

It wasn’t the first affront during the trip, either. A short time early, Lavrov had publicly humiliated Borrell at a press conference, grumbling that the EU is an "unreliable partner.” He also said that Europe is "culturally arrogant” for not sharing the findings of its investigation into the attack on opposition politician Alexei Navalny with Moscow. He said only military doctors could have detected the presence of the Russian nerve agent Novichok in Navalny. Lavrov said that was quite telling, even though his own intelligence officers certainly knew what they were using when they tried to murder the opposition politician.

DER SPIEGEL 7/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2021 (February 13, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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It was bad enough that Borrell said little in response to the verbal onslaught. But he then turned around and did Lavrov the favor of criticizing the U.S. government for its Cuba policy. Rather than hammering back, the EU’s chief diplomat went on to say that there is currently "no proposal” by any EU member state for new sanctions against Russia, even though a discussion of those steps was already well underway.

Back in Brussels, Borrell was now attempting to defend himself in parliament. He said he had spoken in blunt terms with Lavrov closed doors. And that when he called for Navalny’s immediate release and an investigation into the attack, the conversation grew "heated.” He also said that Russia isn’t a modern democracy and is "going down a worrisome authoritarian route.” And that he would soon propose "robust action” to contain Russia.

It was Cold War vernacular that would have caused a considerable stir under normal circumstances. But in this case, the words just fizzled out. It seems as though Borrell was belatedly trying to win a battle he had long since lost.

Incident Highlights Problems with EU Foreign Policy

The debate over Borrell's ill-fated visit to Moscow highlights what has been going wrong with European foreign policy for years. For one thing, there’s the people chosen to occupy the post itself. The only political heavyweight to hold the position of high representative so far has been Javier Solana, the former foreign minister of Spain. His successors, Catherine Ashton of Britain and Federica Mogherini of Italy, struggled to be heard over the foreign ministers of the EU member states. Among the European public, hardly anyone knew who they were.

Borrell, 73, isn't exactly known for his clout, either. His appointment was the result of a political deal. In order to push through Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron needed the support of the center-left Social Democrats. Their support was largely organized by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was allowed in return to fill the post of high representative. He chose Borrell.

In addition, Borrell, despite having filled numerous political posts in Spain, including as foreign minister, has little experience in dealing with Eastern Europe and Russia. His expertise has long been in development policy, and his interests so far have been focused on South America and Africa, which are not exactly the current hotspots in European foreign policy.

But there’s not much Borrell can do about his biggest problem. And that’s the fact that his work is dependent on the will of the 27 member states and the principle of unanimity that still applies to foreign policy issues. "Agreeing on a unified EU foreign policy is sometimes more difficult than herding a bag of fleas," says former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who is also a member of the Social Democrats.

Borrell wants to take "robust action" against Russia.

Grand words from von der Leyen that she will lead a "geopolitical commission” and that Europe has to "learn the language of power,” regularly collide with a reality in which 27 EU member states pursue their own foreign policy interests and are unwilling to relinquish even small parts of their power. Recently, Borrell even failed with his proposal to abolish the unanimity requirement on human rights issues. "The criticism of Borrell is only partially justified," says Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green Party member from Germany who is his party’s foreign policy expert in the European Parliament. "You can’t expect the High Representative to conjure up what Berlin and Paris can’t manage.”

The same applies to Russia policy. Traditionally, the Poles and the Baltic states have pushed for a harder line, whereas others have opted for dialogue and business deals with Moscow. Despite Navalny's conviction and the arrest of thousands of protesters, no EU member state has actually made a formal request for new sanctions to date, including Germany.

The frustration is widespread in the EU External Action Service. Borrell only has as much power as the EU member states are willing to grant him – and that’s not much, say diplomats. But there are a number of other means the EU could use outside of the current sanctions against individual citizens, companies or Russian authorities. Broad trade measures or even direct military aid to Ukraine are conceivable. But the courage to do so has to be there.

The Russia Question Is also Dividing Conservatives

During his appearance before the European Parliament, some even defended Borrell. Kati Piri, a Social Democrat in the European Parliament from the Netherlands, noted how the EU member states didn’t move to impose any significant sanctions against Russia after the poison attack on Navalny. They didn’t even manage to issue a joint statement, because right-wing nationalist Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán vetoed it. Meanwhile, the government of Cyprus is busy selling EU passports to Putin’s henchmen; France’s Macron is promoting a new dialogue with Moscow; and work recently resumed on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Germany, "with the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” Piri noted.

The Russia issue is also dividing Europe’s conservative Christian Democrats. On Monday, 81 members of the European Parliament with the party sent a letter to fellow Christian Democrat von der Leyen calling for her to fire Borrell. The letter, which had been initiated by Riho Terras, a conservative former general from Estonia, stated that Borrell's Moscow trip "caused severe damage to the reputation of the EU.” Most of the signatures in the letter came from politicians in Northern and Eastern Europe.

Daniel Caspary, head of the faction of German Christian Democrats in European Parliament, argues the letter is off the mark. Sure, he says, Borrell wasn’t the ideal candidate to become the EU’s top diplomat – he had been "unconvincing” even during his stint as president of European Parliament from 2004 to 2007. "But I think a resignation discussion is inappropriate and out of place," Caspary says. He says people calling for Borrell’s resignation now are just following the Kremlin’s lead. "We can’t allow ourselves in the EU to do Putin’s work for him and allow ourselves to be dismantled,” the CDU politician says.

As humiliating as Borrell’s trip may have been in the moment, it could have a disciplining effect on the EU in the coming weeks. Borrell told parliament in Brussels that his visit had not been a failure. He said he wanted to find out if the Russians were still interested in good relations. "The answer has been clear: No, they are not.”

"It’s a big risk for Borrell, and I doubt he will make a proposal that has no chance of success."

Luxembourg Foreigen Minister Jean Asselborn

The member states now know without a doubt where Russia stands. The ambassadors of the EU states were all in agreement on that after a meeting with a representative of Borrell's Foreign Service on Wednesday evening, according to reports from the ministerial round. No member state has ruled out the possibility of further sanctions.

It’s an irony of history. Sanctions that Borrell had previously been unwilling to propose – a position shared by many member states – could now be implemented. Borrell said he would use the right of initiative he has as the high representative to make "concrete proposals” for "robust action” against the Russians. On Feb. 22, the EU foreign ministers will be meeting under his leadership, and they will need to deliver by then.

"It’s a big risk for Borrell, and I doubt he will make a proposal that has no chance of success,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "Otherwise, Putin and Lavrov would once again be the winners.”

That could also be uncomfortable for Berlin, because it might rekindle the conversation about placing a moratorium on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. So far, the other member states have held back. At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, Poland was the only country to address the Baltic Sea pipeline. "If other sanctions fail, some may feel emboldened again to put the pipeline on the agenda,” Asselborn said. He thinks that would be a mistake.