Josep Borrell's trip to Moscow: legitimate, necessary, useful?

(B2) Josep Borrell's trip to Moscow in early February sparked a wave of criticism. But in the end, it may not have been so useless. And those who could criticize him would almost welcome it today...

Josep Borrell (credit: EU Council)

The dust settled, we can ask ourselves a few questions about the direction of the trip to Moscow of the head of European diplomacy: 1. Should we go there? 2. Was the time right? 3. Did the High Representative of the EU inform the ministers? 4. Did he consult with them beforehand? 5. Did he fail in his mission? 6. Were the criticisms justified 7. Was it in the majority? 8. Was this trip ultimately useful ? 9. What game do the Russians play?

Should we go there?

Yes, we had to go. If a diplomat doesn't go see rogues, bad guys and other miscreants, he's not a diplomat, he's a useless paltoquet. The job of the diplomat is precisely that, to go and see what the other political leaders cannot meet officially.

Was the moment welcome?

This question can be answered with another: are there welcome moments with the Russians? At the time of the imprisonment of A. Navalny and many demonstrators, the moment could seem justified. Not going there and being satisfied with a few words spoken from afar was certainly more convenient and risk-free. But the effect would have been even more limited. Moreover, ahead of a debate scheduled for the March European Council on relations between the European Union and Russia, it might be necessary to take the temperature.

Has the High Representative received a green light before going to Moscow?

Yes. Josep Borrell informed the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, like the other members of the European Commission, of which he is a member, on January 27, of his desire to go to Moscow. This in order to " prepare the exchange of views of the leaders of the Union planned for March. The High Representative has taken no one as a traitor. This position had moreover been defined since the informal meeting of foreign ministers (gymnich) in March 2020 in Zagreb, a clear and asserted EU position, which was based on the five discussion principles defined previously (2016).

More specifically, has it received a mandate from the Member States?

Yes and no. It depends on what we mean by 'mandate'. If the consensus was not reached around the table, there was (apart from certain 'reservations' or 'oppositions') a certain consensus around the table of ministers for this trip. The message was also clear: inform the Russian authorities of European concerns in the Navalny affair, as in the lack of progress in the Ukrainian file. But in the formal sense of the term, he had no mandate to go there.

Did it deliver the expected message?

Yes. The European message to Russia on the 'Navalny' case has been passed on. If our information is correct, it also constituted a good half of the hour and a half of discussion between Sergei Lavrov and Josep Borrell. Discussion clashed, difficult, according to witnesses. " As soon as we touch on the Navalny case, we touch on a question of national sovereignty “, confirms a European interlocutor. Lavrov said it sharply to the European representative. Who did not let himself be dismantled. The issue of non-compliance with the Minsk agreements and the situation in Ukraine, nearly seven years after the start of the conflict, was also discussed. Suffice to say that Lavrov was not in a playful mood when he arrived at the press conference, and had only one desire: to stuff himself with the 'boring European'...

Has the High Representative exceeded his role?

This question is in fact eminently political. It depends on how the role of the High Representative is conceived. Is he just a simple, faithful executor of the will of the Member States? Or does he have some leeway? Basically, is he just a message carrier or a true chief diplomat. Within the meaning of the European Treaty, he is certainly head of the European diplomatic service and responsible for representing the European Union abroad. It therefore enjoys formal autonomy. But that does not make him the head of all European diplomacy, which retains its independence on this point, its preferences and its 'caveats'. Foreign policy remains above all a national thing. In reality, the High Representative must, therefore, constantly juggle between the different positions (expressed or not expressed), identify where he has leeway to act (and those where he does not). In this case, it cannot be said that Josep Borrell went beyond his skills. Those who claim otherwise are those who either have not read the treaty, or have read it very well, but do not want an active Europe in terms of foreign policy.

Why did the press conference leave a disastrous impression?

This is undoubtedly the most fragile moment of the visit. This press conference, at the end of the discussion between S.Lavrov and J.Borrell, was a real trap set up by Russian diplomatic communication. Playing on her field, at home, she was able to direct the questions at her leisure to put the Union's chief diplomat in difficulty. This one resisted. But we cannot say that he showed himself to advantage. It is especially in the communication implemented around twitter, you tube and other social networks that the European Union has lost the battle (1).


Was this trip useful?

In terms of self-esteem, it is undoubtedly a defeat. On the political level, it is a complete success. Before the trip, Europeans were hesitant about what attitude to have towards Moscow. After the trip - and the meeting of Foreign Ministers on Monday (22.02) showed this - they came together around an idea: Russia cannot be allowed to use Europe and interpret the rules of of man in his own way. And the '27' have decided to use the instrument never used before (the horizontal regulation on human rights).

What is the result for Russia?

Russia certainly trapped the European diplomat. But she also trapped herself. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who we knew to be more shrewd, more perverse, hit very hard, perhaps even too hard, on a messenger who was altogether animated by good intentions. The charge, brutal convinced if there were still some hesitant, that Russia does not have the dialogue anchored in the genes. And that it is therefore better to 'type first, discuss later' (the Slavic method in fact).

Is this new?

No. We can even say that it is an old habit. Each time that the Europeans have, in the past, been reluctant to sanction Russia's attitude Moscow, in particular following its intervention in Ukraine, Moscow has served them, as if on a plate, with arguments to help them take the plunge Sanctions. This was the case during the implementation of economic sanctions against Russia, at each stage of the procedure in 2014. As if Russia took pleasure in being able to show itself in the position of a martyr.

The rejection of dialogue with the European Union

This position in fact reflects an already long-standing development of Russia, which no longer considers the European Union as a potential ally (position of the end of the 2000s) or at worst as a useful object, but intends to deny its existence, considering that this international structure is not necessary, that it is more appropriate to establish relations with the States (or not), but not with the EU as such. A bit like in a very 'Trumpian' posture in fact!

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Vocal reviews, but in the minority

On Russia, the differences between Europeans are clear. On the one hand, there are those who say, don't talk to Russia, it's useless. They advocate a harsh policy of ostracization, like the Poles or the British. The others believe, somewhat naively, that we must continue to dialogue, or even cooperate with Russia, if only by geographical proximity, but also by certain common interests (fight against terrorism, climate, trade, etc. .).

If the first camp is very noisy, make no mistake about it, it is rather a minority today within the European Union. It brings together at most a good half-dozen countries, mainly located not in Eastern Europe, but essentially in the North-East (Baltic countries, Poland, Sweden, Romania). With Brexit, this camp has lost a notable ally (the United Kingdom). If we applied the principle of qualified majority, these countries would not be able to form a blocking minority (far from it, since they would only represent 13,5% of the vote).

The second camp is more furnished. Admittedly, it is spread out between those who display a closeness to Moscow (Cyprus and Hungary in particular), and those in favor of a more or less firm dialogue with Moscow. But there are the big four (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) and many other countries which, for various reasons, do not want to cut ties with Moscow (Austria, Finland, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg, etc.), as well as an equivalent number of Eastern European countries (Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria).

We are therefore not, as some like to describe it, in a 'new Member States' confrontation, but in an ideological position that goes back a good ten years. At the Lahti summit in 2006, in Finland, this divergence was already very present. It was accentuated with the Russian interventions in Georgia (2008) then in Ukraine (2014).

  1. A battle partly lost because the Europeans who constantly comment on disinformation have not grasped the importance of strategic communication. And, above all, to react quickly, for the European public (not only for the Russian public), in all usable languages. The European version did not arrive until nearly 48 hours after the events, in the form of an epistolary blog from the High Representative. No press briefing or explanation was thus organized for European journalists. Fundamental error which is not due, there, to Russian duplicity, but to European incapacity.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

One thought on “Josep Borrell's trip to Moscow: legitimate, necessary, useful?"

  • February 24 2021 to 11: 50

    Completely agree on the shortcomings of the EU in terms of communication strategy, an essential part of strategic autonomy yet clearly stated as an objective by the European Council

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