Borrell’s Moscow trip is a learning experience, not the death of EU foreign policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs,, Josep Borrell, during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels on 9 February 2021. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL]

Despite EU chief diplomat Joseph Borrell’s Moscow adventure, EU foreign policy has not died, and he should not resign, writes Niklas Novaky.

Niklas Novaky is a research officer for EU security and defence policy at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels.

Borrell’s Moscow trip faced challenges from the very beginning. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania opposed it, arguing that it undermined the credibility of the EU’s efforts to condemn the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the violent crackdown on protesters that followed.

Then, during a staged press conference in Moscow, Borrell was baited into discussing EU-Cuba relations and condemning the US embargo on Cuba. Lavrov used the opening to highlight a disagreement between Washington and Brussels and to attack the EU’s sanctions policy. He also called the EU an unreliable partner without being challenged.

Borrell was also caught off guard by Russia’s decision to expel German, Swedish and Polish diplomats due to their alleged participation in pro-Navalny protests, an accusation that Berlin, Stockholm and Warsaw have denied.

Since the trip, Borrell has come under heavy scrutiny. On 9 February, many MEPs criticised Borrell for going to Moscow and for not standing up to Lavrov. 81 MEPs have also signed a letter calling for Borrell’s dismissal. It has even been argued that the Moscow debacle marked the death of EU foreign policy.

However, EU foreign policy has not died, and Borrell should not resign. This would only reinforce the message that the EU is weak and internally divided when bullied by Moscow. Instead, Borrell and the EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic service, should draw lessons from the trip, ensure better preparedness in the future, and then move on.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, the first EU envoy to have met Lavrov since Borrell, succeeded in doing damage control on 15 February.

During a joint press conference in St Petersburg, a calm but firm Haavisto made clear that the EU’s Russia policy is Finland’s Russia policy; condemned Navalny’s imprisonment, the crackdown on protesters, and the expulsion of EU diplomats; and corrected Lavrov’s EU barbs whenever necessary.

This was the press conference that Borrell should have had.

One thing to consider is the introduction of an unwritten rule that all high-level trips by the High Representative should require explicit backing from the entire Council to provide them with a stronger political mandate. Although a majority of Council members supported the Moscow trip, it was notably opposed by multiple countries that share a border with Russia.

Some would see this as a step back for EU foreign policy as it would tie the High Representative’s foreign visits to the member states’ ability to reach a consensus on them.

They would point out that Javier Solana, the first High Representative, often acted on his own initiative and was highly effective. In the early 2000s, Solana played a key role inter alia in the Iran nuclear talks and in operationalising the EU’s crisis management structures.

However, comparing Borrell to Solana is misplaced. Solana had more flexibility to define his role because the function of his office was initially defined in a single treaty paragraph. The office of the modern High Representative is more formalised and rigid.

He/she is also the chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, a vice-president of the European Commission, and head of the EEAS.

The EU has also grown. For half of Solana’s time in office, the EU consisted of only 15 member states. The 2004 “big bang” enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe in particular made the foreign policy views expressed in the Council more diverse. This makes the operating environment of the modern High Representative more challenging.

The biggest problem of EU foreign policy is structural rather than based on individuals. The Moscow trip and its aftermath have—yet again—highlighted the EU’s inability to pursue a common approach towards great power rivals. This is the member states’ fault.

EU capitals continue to hold conflicting views on Russia: some see it as an existential threat, some as an economic partner, and some as a potential ally against China. Borrell cannot be blamed for the overall sorry state of the EU’s Russia policy.

There are things that can be done. First, Russia’s treatment of Borrell and the expulsion of EU diplomats demonstrated that Moscow is uninterested in a more constructive relationship with the EU.

To respond, all member states should show solidarity with Germany, Poland and Sweden and expel one Russian diplomat each. This would send a message that the EU will react as one when bullied.

Second, the EU should use the forthcoming Strategic Compass to sharpen its Russia policy. The sanitised public memo on the classified threat analysis that the EEAS produced for the document in 2020 was a missed opportunity to communicate frankly about the EU’s threat environment. The Strategic Compass itself, coming out in 2022, should prioritise frankness.

Third, the European Parliament will produce a report this year on the EU’s Russia strategy, which will allow MEPs to put pressure on the Council. It should underline that the national economic short-termism of some member states is the greatest obstacle to a common EU approach towards Russia.

It should also call for new funding for pro-democracy civil society organisations and vigorous implementation of the EU Green Deal, which could reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels to zero by 2050.

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