The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell admitted to EU foreign ministers at a meeting earlier this week that he had mishandled the recent visit to Moscow, diplomatic sources have told EURACTIV. The European Commission did not confirm this but stressed there had been broad support for the veteran Spanish diplomat.
“In his speech at the last EU foreign affairs meeting, Borrell said he was sorry for not being aggressive at the press conference with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov,” the sources said.
The same sources added that no EU foreign minister had criticised Borrell for his stance but instead found Russia’s behaviour quite inappropriate in diplomatic terms and “disrespectful” towards Europe’s top diplomat, known for his low profile.
Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow in early February had raised eyebrows among EU diplomats and drawn heavy criticism after he unwittingly became part of a Kremlin-orchestrated show, seen by many as a humiliation.
On Monday (22 February), EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on four senior Russian officials, after the associates of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny urged them to go after oligarchs accused of funding President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
EU ambassadors are expected to activate next Wednesday the written procedure of the sanctions, with them potentially entering into force on 5 March.
Another EU diplomat quoted Borrell as saying that Lavrov had attacked the EU as a whole and wasted an opportunity for dialogue. “It wasn’t a good time because Russia is not ready for cooperation,” Borrell said, according to the diplomat.
“Borrell admitted that this visit was not fully prepared. It was obvious for many member states,” the EU diplomat said.
Contacted by EURACTIV, an EU spokesperson did not confirm Borrell’s apology but stressed that “on the contrary, there was broad support for him from the foreign ministers in the discussion about the Moscow visit”.
Nord Stream 2
The sources also said that EU ministers had asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken via video link about Russia’s Nord Stream 2.
Around 150 kilometres of the controversial gas pipeline project, controlled by the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom, are still to be completed.
The Biden administration imposed on 19 February additional sanctions on a Russian vessel and the ship’s owner for their work on the pipeline.
Blinken reportedly replied in general terms, backing the diversification of Europe’s energy supply while criticising Moscow’s “weaponisation of energy”.
Ahead of the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau had appealed to US President Joe Biden to prevent the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which they called a “dangerous, divisive project.”
One diplomat who participated in the meeting on Monday said the Polish minister “made a strong case, highlighting that Russia has consistently shown us that it is not interested in a constructive, mutually beneficial cooperation with the EU”.
“Every potential attempt to enter into a dialogue with Moscow in the future has to have a tangible objective for the EU and unambiguously serve our interests”, he said, adding that it should be met with an “adequate response” from Brussels.
In a follow-up phone call on Tuesday (23 February), Rau and Blinken confirmed their willingness to strengthen the bilateral partnership and oppose Nord Stream 2.
“The Polish and US top diplomats agreed to continue a close dialogue and close bilateral cooperation within international organisations in order to consolidate the transatlantic community,” a ministry read-out of the call said.
According to the statement, Rau and Blinken said the governments of Poland and the US “are of the opinion that Nord Stream is a bad solution for Europe and that the diversification of transport routes for energy raw materials should be carried out in a way, which does not pose a threat of an energy blackmail to other allies and partners.”
Russia’s Sputnik vaccine
Speaking about Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó revealed that many EU countries have contacted Budapest, asking for a “phone number” in Moscow to order Sputnik vaccines, diplomatic sources said.
Hungary, a country of 9.8 million people, has repeatedly criticised the slow pace of the EU’s process for acquiring vaccines. At the end of last month, Hungary struck a deal with Moscow for two million doses of the two-shot jab and has so far received 145,600 doses.
Circles in Brussels do not see Russia’s Sputnik in a positive light, fearing that Moscow has a hidden political agenda. Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen recently wondered why Russia is promising millions of vaccines to many countries across the world while it has not vaccinated its own people first.
Moscow hit back, accusing von der Leyen of trying to politicise a humanitarian issue.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic, Sarantis Michalopoulos | EURACTIV.com]