MEPs and diplomats say Josep Borrell was outplayed by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov
More European sanctions on Russia may be announced next week, but not even the humiliation of the EU’s foreign policy chief on a visit to Moscow last week looks likely to sharpen the bloc’s woefully divided policy towards the Kremlin, analysts say.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, has come under heavy fire from MEPs, diplomats and observers this week who mostly saw him as having been embarrassingly outplayed by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
But experts say the latest EU-Russia row is unlikely to lead to any immediate toughening of the bloc’s stance towards an increasingly assertive Moscow because member states cannot agree on how to handle Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Borrell’s trip, which had been opposed by some member states, culminated in a press conference during which Lavrov accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of the jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called the bloc an “unreliable partner”.
Adding insult to injury, Borrell subsequently learned from Twitter, after the press conference was over, that Russia had expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for allegedly attending demonstrations in Navalny’s support.
The former Spanish foreign minister told MEPs on Tuesday he had wanted to see if Moscow was “interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations, and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue”.
The answer was clear, he said: “They are not.” Russia had “not fulfilled expectations of becoming a modern democracy”, he said, and was “progressively disconnecting itself from Europe, looking at democratic values as an existential threat”.
Borrell said there was “deep disappointment and growing mistrust” between the two sides and that he would propose further concrete steps, possibly including sanctions, against Moscow for Navalny’s imprisonment before a meeting of EU foreign ministers on 22 February.
Lavrov has since responded, saying it was the EU that was “alienating Russia” and reaffirming Russia’s wish for a relationship “based not on unilateral demands, but on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests”.
More than 70 MEPs have signed a letter demanding Borrell’s resignation. Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian MEP and leader of the centrist Renew group, said the visit had “sadly had a negative impact on the credibility of the EU in the diplomatic sector”.
Others, though, acknowledged a wider problem. Moscow “abused” Borrell’s visit “to humiliate and offend the EU”, the Dutch Socialist MEP Kati Piri said, but the result might not have been the same “if EU leaders had taken a tougher stance … We need a united strategy on Russia.”
Reinhard Bütikofer, a leading German Green MEP, made much the same point, bluntly describing the visit as “a failure” but observing that Borrell had been “dealt a very bad hand because of the lack of unity in the [European] council”.
EU unity on Russia, however, is unlikely to appear any time soon. Despite mounting concern at Moscow’s behaviour in many capitals, there is widespread disagreement over how to respond, with national strategic and economic interests far from aligned.
Germany, which played a major role in EU sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is resisting calls to back out of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, preferring targeted sanctions against wealthy Kremlin supporters.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron of France still favours dialogue and a strategic “reset” in EU-Russia relations, while Poland and the Baltic states want far tougher action.
“Moscow knows what it wants from the EU: a relationship based on dealing separately with each member state,” said Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe thinktank. “In contrast, the EU and the member states, collectively, don’t know what kind of dialogue or relationship they want with Russia.”
Like his predecessors, Borrell was bound to fall short because the bloc lacks a genuinely European strategy “combining values, common interests, and goals”, Dempsey said. “Until now, national interests in Europe have prevented that from happening. It’s hard to see that changing.”
Nicu Popescu of the European council on foreign relations argued that European attempts to reset relations with Russia were doomed to failure because they are “predicated on the idea of mutual concessions”.
Russian thinking, Popescu said, was that if the west wants resets, it is up to the west to retrench, which meant that “each new reset offer only fuels Russian reluctance to truly engage”.
A more muscular approach might yield better results, he added. “Maintaining the sanctions pressure, giving up on Nord Stream 2, and nurturing deeper security partnerships with the EU’s eastern neighbours might be a rockier, but ultimately more secure, route to re-engaging with Russia.”