After a defeating trip to Moscow, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell on Sunday (7 February) tried to explain and justify his controversial trip to Moscow but admitted that relations between the EU and Russia have hit rock bottom.
Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow, which ended on Saturday, had raised eyebrows among EU diplomats and received heavy criticism after the EU first diplomat became part of a show in which he was humiliated by his hosts.
In a blog post, in language and tone suggesting the failed trip might have been somewhat eyeopening for Borrell, he wrote that relations between the EU and Russia are “at a crossroads” following a visit that the diplomat described as “very complicated.”
According to him, an “aggressively-staged press conference and the expulsion of three EU diplomats during my visit indicate that the Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU.”
As both diplomats were meeting face-to-face, Moscow had announced that diplomats from Sweden, Poland, and Germany had been expelled for purportedly participating in “illegal protests” to support jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny on 23 January.
All three governments denied that their diplomats had participated in the demonstration.
Borrell, in turn, said he learned about the expulsion through social media and had “asked Lavrov to reverse this decision, but to no avail”.
The EU “will have to draw the consequences” he wrote, insisting that “it will be for member states to decide the next steps, and yes, these could include sanctions.”
During a press event on Friday, which saw orchestrated questions by Russian journalists, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called the EU “an unreliable partner” and said it was acting more and more “like the United States”.
To add insult to injury, Borrell’s visit was overshadowed by what some critics called provocative choreography, as Navalny appeared in a glass cage in a Moscow courtroom answering new charges.
The 50 minutes encounter confirmed those in Brussels and Central and Eastern Europe who do not trust the Spaniard to hold the post of EU chief diplomat, or to face-off with a seasoned diplomat like Lavrov.
Borrell said he had conveyed the EU’s condemnation of Navalny’s jailing but did not secure a meeting with neither the Kremlin critic himself nor any associates. He, however, managed to meet with representatives of civil society, think tanks and representatives of the European business community.
In his blog post, Borrell now called on the EU to “reflect carefully on the direction we want to give to our relations with Russia and proceed in a united manner with determination.”
He added that the visit had “confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart.”
The EU’s chief diplomat, whose views do not necessarily represent those of all member states, defended his visit arguing that criticising Russia from a distance “will not bring greater security to the EU”.
“We have to face challenges, including meeting others in their home turf, just when negative events are unfolding” in order to better assess the action to take.
“If we want a safer world for tomorrow, we have to act decidedly today and be ready to take some risks,” he said.
“It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat,” he wrote.
Borrell said that during their “review of our troubled neighbourhood,” Russia and the EU would “remain more often than not at odds”.
Contrary to previous positions, Borrell this time around added that the EU’s next steps could include further sanctions against Moscow.
“We also have another tool in this respect, thanks to the recently approved EU human rights sanctions regime,” he wrote.
Thus it seems the EU’s recently approved Magnitsky-style law allows the bloc to impose sanctions on individuals and organisations responsible for human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
Despite calls from the Baltic countries, Poland, Italy and Romania, EU foreign ministers in January had decided to hold off from imposing fresh sanctions on Russian officials in response to the detention of Navalny, but the tide could be turning after the recent worsening of tensions and the outcomes of the trip as calls across the bloc grow for more decisive action.
Borrell is set to debrief his trip to EU foreign ministers on 22 February and EU leaders are scheduled to discuss their strained ties with Russia during a March summit.
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)