30th Mar 2023


Borrell wants a bolder, faster EU — and scolds diplomats to get to it

  • EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confessed that Europe did not believe the Americans when they said Russia will attack Ukraine, and did not believe Ukraine can fight back so fiercely (Photo: European Commission)
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Most in Brussels were not keen to follow the speech of EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell on Monday (10 October) to EU ambassadors. It is very much an internal EU event.

When people started pouring over the speech on Tuesday, it turned out Borrell not only scolded his own diplomats seated around the world, he told them to be bolder, faster and communicate the EU's narrative more assertively.

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The former Spanish foreign minister laid out plainly some uncomfortable statements about where Europe stands and where it is headed in a multipolar world, stuck between a competing US and China.

"This is not a moment when we are going to send flowers to all of you saying that you are beautiful," he warned EU ambassadors early in his speech, which was refreshingly honest in the barren land of EU-speak.

Borrell said Europe's prosperity for decades was decoupled from its security. Prosperity was based on China and Russia in terms of market and energy. Security was based on the US, but what happens if Trump comes back, Borrell asks.

That comfortable world is gone, Borrell said, noting what even former German chancellor Angela Merkel — now often dismissed for maintaining solid relationship with Russia — said before: Europe must do more on its own.

"Clearly, today, we have to find new ways for energy from inside the European Union, as much as we can, because we should not change one dependency for another," he said.

"The adjustment will be tough, and this will create political problems," he warned, adding that the "radical right is increasing in our democracies".

Borrell said Europe should listen more, because not every country who is on the fence about which camp to belong to — nations such as Turkey, India, Brazil — will follow Europe.

Borrell confessed that Europe did not believe the Americans when they said Russia will attack Ukraine, and did not believe Ukraine could fight back so fiercely. The escalation of tensions in Taiwan came as a surprise, the severity of food crisis was not fully understood, and the degree of influence of Russia in Africa unexpected.

He said that the "messy multipolarity" is structured by the the US-China competition, which is complemented by a democracy vs. authoritarian divide as well.

Borrell said there are "a lot of authoritarian regimes" on "our side". "There is an authoritarian trend. Sometimes, they are still wearing the democracy suit, but they are no longer democracies," he added.

The 75-year-old politician called it a "perfect storm" that everyone is following the US's Federal Reserve's interest rate hike, spiralling towards a recession.

He warned that "old recipes do not work anymore", and "we have mounting security challenges and our internal cohesion is under threat".

However, for now, his statements remain little more than a curiousity.

"It is hard to tell at this point, if it is a very old stand up artist or if this means a sea-change in the EEAS policy going forward," one EU diplomat told EUobserver about Borrell's speech, referring to the European External Action Service (EEAS), the union's diplomatic service.

'Best-informed guy'

In perhaps the most suprising bit of the speech, Borrell scolded his diplomats for having to find out developments from newspapers and not from their reports, saying "I should be the best-informed guy in the world".

"I want you to be more reactive, 24 hours a day. We are living in a crisis, you have to be in the crisis mode," Borrell said.

The EU diplomat told us he was "baffled" by this remark, as diplomats are rarely able to compete with news outlets, and their work is more based on analysis and drawing up policy options.

Borrell also told diplomats to engage in the battle of narratives, and to also deploy empathy and emotions, not only reason as part of their arguments.

"This is a battle that we are not winning because we are not fighting enough. We do not understand that it is a fight. Apart from conquering a space, you have to conquer the minds," he said, adding: "It is a big battle: who is going to win the spirits and the souls of people?"

This is easier said than done, as Borrell and his diplomatic corps face obstacles.

"It is very hard to be assertive if you have 27 countries to coordinate with [for a statement]," commented the EU diplomat.

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