EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell admitted that his visit to Russia, scheduled for the end of the week, is seen with suspicion by some EU member states, but insisted that maintaining contacts with Moscow was the right strategy for the EU.
Borrell made the remarks during an online discussion organised by the Robert Schuman Foundation on Monday (1 February). The entire discussion was held in French.
More than three years have passed since the last visit to Moscow by an EU high representative for foreign affairs.
The highlight of Borrell’s visit will be the EU’s reiterated call on Russian authorities to release opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin critic is in detention, allegedly for breaching the conditions of an earlier suspended term while he was recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning from Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.
However, Borrell played down expectations for a breakthrough in the Navalny case. Asked by Jean-Dominique Giuliani, President of the Robert Schuman Foundation, whether he could obtain his liberation, he answered “probably not”.
The Spanish social-democrat admitted that several EU countries opposed his visit, which he described as “controversial”, but insisted on the importance of having one-to-one contacts with big EU neighbours such as Russia.
“We cannot say: ‘I don’t like you, I will stay in my corner’,” Borrell said.
While he could easily pick up the phone to speak to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the visit also includes contacts with Russian civil society, which are impossible online, Borrell further explained.
Asked about recent French calls to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project in reaction to the detention of Navalny, he said this was not the way to solve the problem.
The Commission has never been a “big supporter” of Nord Stream 2, but it cannot prevent German companies from doing business with Russia, he said.
Regarding the bigger picture of EU-Russia relations, Borrell said these lacked a common denominator. “We must build one,” he said.
According to Russian media, issues to be discussed with Borrell include the Western Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States (the post-Soviet countries), the future of Iran’s nuclear deal, Nagorno-Karabakh, security issues in Europe and other topics of mutual interest.
Borrell gave a different reading of the topics, saying that he will discuss the ongoing “Astanisation” by Russia and Turkey of conflicts such as Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The so-called “Astana process” in Syria was the first example of an alternative conflict resolution mechanism taking place outside the established UN framework dominated by Western countries. Syria, just like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is escaping established formats of international oversight to the benefit of bilateral agreements brokered by Russia and Turkey.
According to Borrell, it is only normal that EU countries have different views on Russia and the US. Citing Poland and his native Spain as an example, he said Poles see the US as a beacon for democracy while many Spaniards still remember that Washington supported the Francoist dictatorship.
Regarding the EU policy of “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the US and China, Borrell said it was important that Americans realise that this strategy is not directed against them.
The COVID crisis has marked the beginning of “the Asian century,” Borrell said, explaining that the continent has emerged victorious from the crisis.
According to him, the post-COVID world will be “more digital, more Asiatic and more unequal,” and consequently, more unstable.
While Westerners “were the masters of technologies” before COVID, “others will be the new masters” in the post-COVID world, said the EU’s top diplomat, warning that Europe risked lagging behind in the technologies of the 21st century if it doesn’t wake up to the new geopolitical realities.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]