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13th Dec 2019

Feature

Borrell: from controversy to EU's top diplomat

  • Josep Borrell, 72, has already been found guilty of insider share dealing, among various other controversies (Photo: European Parliament)

The nomination of Spain's Josep Borrell as the EU high-representative for foreign affairs and vice-president of the commission was among one of Ursula von der Leyen's most surprising appointments - he is 72-years-old and his career has been marred by more than one contentious event.

Borrell is a former aeronautical engineer with a doctorate in economics and an extensive experience in Brussels.

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He was elected as the president of the EU Parliament from 2004 to 2007, and remained as the president of the committee on development until 2009.

"I have witnessed first-hand the necessity of a stronger Europe, one that defends European values the world over in the face of threats that affect all Europeans," Borrell says in his CV, which he submitted to the parliament as a requirement for the hearing, together with the declaration of financial interests.

But, at first inspection, the parliament's legal affairs committee was not satisfied with the financial declaration of Borrell.

As a result, he was asked to provide further information about his €2.77m assets and his shares in three companies (Iberdrola, Bayer andl BBVA) - which account for 13 percent of his assets.

In a letter to the chair of the committee on legal affairs, British MEP Lucy Nethsingha, Borrell said that he would sell those shares only if it was necessary - and the legal affairs committee concluded that Borrell did not need to sell those shares.

However, according to MEP Diana Riba of the Greens and member of the foreign affairs committee, "it is obvious that, as chief of the European diplomacy, he shouldn't have any ties or interests to any of these companies".

That view was also shared by the leftist GUE/NGL group.

"Over the recent years, Borrell has been involved in serious scandals such as insider trading, and conflicts of interest that makes him incompatible with the responsibilities he has been proposed for," Riba said.

According to MEP Antonio López-Istúriz of the European People's Party, his parliamentary group expects that Borrell will do "a better job as the head of the EU diplomacy than his predecessor Federica Mogherini, whose management was detrimental for EU external policy".

"Unlike Mogherini, we expect him to have a hard stance on communist regimes such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua," said López-Istúriz.

Borrell's controversy

Borrell is also well-known for saying controversial things, that may complicate his hearing taking place on 7 October.

For instance, Borrell has voiced his sympathy for Iran on several occasion - defending the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that US president Donald Trump rejected and pledging to try to save it.

"Iran is a key country in the Middle East region. It has had an essential role in the Syria war, helping Assad while the Americans are pulling out," he wrote on Twitter.

Overall, his relationship with US president Donal Trump is not the best.

Borrell described him as the first US president "to voice hostility towards the European project [and] to describe us as foes".

He also defined China as a "systemic rival", and the EU-Turkey agreement for refugees as a solution "to stop an immigrant haemorrhage".

His comments even made Russia summon the Spanish ambassador to Moscow last May after he referred to the country as an "old enemy [that] is once again saying, 'here I am,' and has returned as a threat".

Additionally, Borrell is well known for his anti-separatist position regarding Catalonia - the province where he was born.

In March, he stopped an interview with German TV DW News after the journalist asked him about the independence movement, questioning the Spanish justice system.

However, MEP Manu Pineda (GUE/NGL) expects that "the personal opinions of the [future] high-representative do not influence [the position of the EU] or are adopted by the EU".

"We expect Borrell to act independently of all the pressures that, without any doubt, he will receive," Pineda added.

Previous scandals

Before he is confirmed as the next top EU diplomat, replacing Italy's Mogherini, he is likely to face questions during his hearing about corruption allegations.

In 1999, Borell could have been the next prime minister of Spain.

However, he resigned his candidacy in order not to harm his party, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) when a fraud scandal concerning two former colleagues of Borrell was revealed.

More recently, as Spanish foreign minister, he was fined €30,000 by the national stock market regulator for a "very serious violation of the securities market law".

In November 2018, the stock market regulator concluded that Borrell sold shares of the company Abengoa with insider information.

Borrell denied the charges, but he did not appeal the verdict.

Instead of resigning, he was chosen to lead the PSOE list for the European elections of 2019 a few months later.

Due to this penalty, he was also forced to resign as president of the European university institute (EUI).

In July, the Spanish leftist party Unidas Podemos denounced eight ministers, including Borrell, before the anti-corruption prosecutor's office for the alleged loss of €2,7bn public funds.

However, this process remains ongoing.

"I truly believe that our responsibility as the parliament is to criticise this appointment that undermines the legitimacy and the reputation of the European institutions," MEP Riba told EUobserver.

Some members of the foreign affairs committee from the liberal Renew group declined to comment on the hearings before they take place.

MEP Dacian Ciolos (Renew), speaking in Strasbourg, said only that Renew Europe have outlined a common approach for the hearings based on four principles: attachment to EU values and treaties, integrity and possible conflicts of interest, competence and political vision for the portfolio and the commitment to follow the mission letters.

"We have an obligation towards EU citizens to put party politics aside and get the best team for Europe," said Ciolos.

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