Denis MacShane / Feb 2021
Photo: European Union 2021
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war intoned Winston Churchill in praise of diplomacy and talking not to your friends who agree with you but the leaders of powers who don’t.
The EU foreign policy chief is Josep Borrell who faithfully reflected Churchill’s injunction on his recent trip to Moscow. The EU High Representative for External Relations to give Borrell his full title was one of the new top EU posts created a decade ago.
The three foreign policy High Representatives so far have all been from the Party of European Socialists. Britain’s Lady Ashton was an unelected Labour functionary. Italy’s Frederica Mogherini, started life as a Young Communist, and who specialised in foreign affairs for the Italian Democratic Party.
The two women were able and hard-working but foreign policy remains firmly under the control of national governments. Lady Ashton tried for a final settlement in the West Balkans but foreign ministries in Madrid and Rome blocked any solution. Ms Mogherini worked hard on the Middle East and Iran but her efforts came to nothing as Trump and Netanyahu blew away all her proposals and she had no backing from Paris or Berlin for tougher action.
Greece has repeatedly appealed for European solidarity as it faces Turkish aggressivity in the Eastern Mediterranean. But Europe’s Foreign Ministers have just turned down a proposal to place Turkey on the EU black list of countries with serious banking irregularities which no one questions. It would have been a powerful signal to Erdogan to back off a bit but Berlin refuses to countenance putting any pressure on Ankara for fear Erdogan will unleash a tsunami of Syrian refugees out of Turkey and into Europe.
Unlike his two predecessors who came out of party machines, Josep Borrell is a heavyweight elected and re-elected politician. He is a Catalan Socialist from a poor rural background in Catalonia who has held several ministerial posts in Spain, including being Foreign Minister up to 2019. He has endured violent and personal assaults in his native Catalonia as he has argued all his life with dignity and firmness that Catalonian nationalism and hate of partnership with the rest of Spain was bad for Catalans, for the rest of Spain, including the Basque Country.
He speaks French and English fluently and is no push-over. He is an Anglophile and has worked constructively with Gibraltar leaders to ensure minimal damage to the Rock from Brexit. His decision to go to Moscow was taken after wide consultation and in response to the outrage that all Europe felt at Putin’s blatant and brutal attempt to poison Alexi Navalny. He could have stayed in Brussels and issued a pro forma condemnation along with national EU foreign ministers.
Instead he was publicly dressed down by Putin’s thuggish, boorish foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov who told Borrell to go home and not ask questions about Navalny. In a remarkable display of Soviet era diplomacy Lavrov patronised Borrell about Catalonia.
It was certainly an unpleasant experience though at 73 Borrell has lived through worse. But instead of seeing the Moscow trip as more proof – as if it were needed – of the reality of what the democratic world faces in the Kremlin, Borrell was attacked publicly especially in the British Brexit press, and by snooty ambassadors representing EU capitals in Brussels. Centre-right EPP MEPs keen to deflect attention from the handling of the EU vaccination programme by the EPP Commission president and centre-right Health Commissioner joined in the dump on the Socialist Borrell.
Yet while he was in Moscow, France’s President Macron, was in Washington via a lengthy question and answer session with the Atlantic Council. On Putin, Macron told his American audience: "Why did I decide indeed to resume parts of discussions with Russia? I advocate ongoing dialogue. Russia is part of Europe from a geographical and historical point of view. The history of President Putin and a lot of leaders, is completely a European one. They have common values, history, literature, culture, mindset."
Angela Merkel shares Macron’s position though German mercantilism, the Drang nach Osten of German business seeking new markets to colonize is her main motivation. MEPs have voted overwhelmingly against the NordStream2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany which is purely a Kremlin project to damage Ukraine, Poland and Baltic states with no economic rationale. But Mrs Merkel and the other Putinversteher – those who understand Putin as the pro-Moscow majority in German political and business circles are called – refuse to put any pressure on the decaying bully in the Kremlin.
In going to Moscow Borrell was doing no more than what Berlin and Paris and the Brussels establishment required of him. However his trip has torn away the last illusions that remain that the EU is dealing with a regime that has any respect for the rules of engagement on the basis of democratic and human rights values.
In that sense as with his truth telling to Catalan extremists, Borrell has been brave and deserves support. He must now energise his big unwieldy External Action service to think creatively about taking the argument to Putin especially by countering Kremlin propaganda on social media and by supporting those in Russia, the West Balkans or even in Britain who want to get closer to Europe in contrast to the Kremlin desire to see the slow disaggregation of Europe into rival nationalist governments.