The EU has taken a pasting from one of its most senior politicians. A few days ago, in the opening speech to the annual conference of EU ambassadors on the new ‘frontiers of diplomacy’, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy Josep Borrell didn’t hold back. He had the ambassadors there, along with the presidents of the European Commission (Ursula von der Leyen), the Council (Charles Michel), various other commissioners, think tank members and the media. He launched straight into the EU’s failings in the face of the greatest crises and radical uncertainty at home and abroad facing the West since 1945.
Top EU politician slams EU foreign policy
It is odd that Borrell’s naked criticism of EU foreign policy has had so little coverage in the UK, even as it slips quietly back into security arrangements, like PESCO, with the EU. That is down to Tory politicking. But there is no mistaking the importance of Borrell’s analysis for Europe’s place in the world and the imperatives facing it in reforming to manage the critical crises confronting us all now.
Multilateralism, climate change, the role of the US in underpinning European scrutiny, the roles of China and Russia in providing energy, and the EU’s fragility in the face of internal threats to democracy were laid bare. Brexit had been a disaster all round: a wake-up call to democracies around the world. Owing to the rise of right-wing extremism and authoritarianism, epitomised by Brexit, Europe’s internal cohesion was under threat. Europe had been taken by surprise and failed to recognise threats on its doorstep. He didn’t mince his words.
“This is not a moment when we are going to send flowers to all of you saying you are beautiful, you work very well and we are very happy, we are one big family, etc”.
What is happening? What is coming? What should we do? he asked. Following up with the unflinchingly self-critical analysis of how the EU works, how ambassadors work, and what failings must be overcome to be more effective in a “world of radical uncertainty”.
Radical uncertainty abroad
Europe, he said, has decoupled the sources of its prosperity from the sources of its security. A basis of European prosperity – cheap energy, from Russia – had not been secure and stable as Europe supposed, and access to China’s markets had come at a price. Security had been delegated to the US. He asked pointedly how Europe would have coped with war in Ukraine had Trump been in the White House.
“We need to shoulder more responsibilities ourselves”, he went on before damning the EU being both incredulous and surprised by the speed of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, from doubting American warnings that war in Ukraine would occur to foreseeing Putin’s capacity for escalation, mass mobilisation and nuclear threats.
He was similarly critical of responses to other crises. The EU had not anticipated the rising tension in the Taiwan Straits and associated war games, he said. The global south faces the same multipolar financial, food and energy crises, he continued. And demanding recognition, fairness and justice.
Worse still, climate change plus war was “creating a humanitarian crisis of ‘dantesque’ proportions, notably in the Horn of Africa. This is a perfect storm”.
As for the west, the response to domestic economic turmoil was parlous. There seemed to be no alternative to following the Federal Reserve: “What was happening among us before the Euro is happening today on the world stage.” The world faces recession.
Insecurity was not simply in Ukraine, but on Europe’s doorstep in Africa. Crisis after crisis erased the previous – Afghanistan – from the front pages without the causes being solved. Europe, had to be alert, he stressed to the new world of “messy multipolarity” based around US-China competition in restructuring the world, and in the “fight between democracies and authoritarians”.
Radical uncertainty at home
“Some who are not democracies at all”, he said pointedly.
“Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion. Both things have to go together. Otherwise, our model will perish, will not be able to survive in this world.” A world, he depicted, as being at risk from “black swans” (a warning from The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).
“Everything is being weaponised: energy, investments, information, migration flows, data, etc. There is a global fight about access to some strategic domains: cyber, maritime, or outer space.” And into this mix come radical nationalism, revisionism plus the EU’s underestimate of identity politics and imperialism, all manipulated by Putin. Plus, information and disinformation.
That ended his analysis of the crises to which Europe had to find an effective response. He saved his sharpest criticism for the EU’s member governments’ ambassadors. Too many, “over 50%” according to a senior official, were government appointees with “absolutely no EU blood in their veins”, sitting in silos, on their laurels instead of being proactive in anticipating, informing and shaping EU strategy in the face of challenges.
A sinecure may have been okay in the past when the EU had no legal responsibilities for foreign policy and security and concentrated on trade. But when the world and its citizens expected ‘the EU’ to have a united response – as in the case of covid and climate change – that was unacceptable. Or, as he Borrell put it:
“Sometimes, I knew more of what was happening somewhere by reading the newspapers than reading your reports … you have to be on 24 hours reaction capacity… Immediately something happens you inform … We are living in a crisis, you have to be in crisis mode.”
His warnings were timely as Russia stepped up the pressure. Following suspected Russian sabotage of undersea gas pipelines and German rail, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said this week that “hybrid and cyber attacks” could trigger NATO’s mutual defence pact, hinting at retaliation if Russia hit Poland.
NATO reaffirmed its intention, if necessary, to deploy conventional responses to Russian attacks, and President Emmanuel Macron said France would not use nuclear weapons in the event of a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine. While many East European states want NATO and the EU to deter Russia – and fast track entry for EU applicants, like Bosnia – others are more restrained in the face of Russian threats.
Today, the deputy secretary general of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Alexander Venediktov, told the Russian state news agency that Ukraine’s fast track admission to NATO would lead to World War Three.
All this within the space of a few days shows how fast Borrell’s world of radical uncertainty is moving.
Lazy or asleep?
Borrell wants people to up their game exponentially, take taboo-breaking decisions, act rather than regret inaction, and create “a better balance between crisis-management and long-term planning”. This was his prelude to excoriating the member states’ appointees for what an official termed “laziness”.
Borrell insisted that they listen to the EU and engage in a “big battle: who is going to win the spirits and souls of people?” at home and abroad.
“We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. We, Europeans, have this extraordinary chance…Let’s try and understand the world the way it is and bring the voice of Europe to the world.”
Freedom, democracy, social cohesion and prosperity are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, he said. But none is inevitable.
In short, if Europe doesn’t up its game together, democracy will fail.