For years, as EU Member States have pursued their own unilateral foreign policy objectives, the European Commission has struggled to make its mark in high-stakes global geopolitics. Any hopes of increased foreign policy competence will seem even further away now in the aftermath of High Representative/Vice President and former Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell’s disastrous visit to Moscow last week.
Many were sceptical of the visit before it had even taken place. Member States had condemned Russia for the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia from Germany where he had spent months recovering from chemical weapon poisoning. HRVP Borrell however insisted that in such a context, it was more important than ever to pursue dialogue with Russia.
At a now infamous joint press conference, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused European leaders of lying about Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. He also denounced the EU’s sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea which he said were “imposed under false pretences.” Borrell conveyed the EU’s disapproval of the jailing of Navalny and asked to visit Navalny in prison but his request was denied.
For the most part he stood by as Lavrov criticised the EU unchallenged, proving he was no match for his Russian counterpart. “We are getting used to the fact that the European Union are trying to impose unilateral restrictions, illegitimate restrictions and we proceed from the assumption at this stage that the European Union is an unreliable partner.”
To add insult to injury, three diplomats from EU Member States Germany, Poland and Sweden were expelled from the country for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny. Borrell learned about the expulsions from Twitter at a working lunch after the press conference and though he reportedly demanded an explanation and reversal of the decision, neither were provided.
Upon his return to Brussels, more than 70 MEPs called for his resignation following what they deemed a “humiliating” visit to Moscow for the EU. The joint letter reads “Borrell’s misjudgement in proactively deciding to visit Moscow and his failure to stand for the interests and values of the European Union during his visit, have caused severe damage to the reputation of the EU” before calling for his dismissal by Commission President von der Leyen if he did not resign by his own accord.
On Tuesday, Borrell appeared in the European Parliament and told MEPs that he went to Russia to see if they were “interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations”. Evidently, they were not and Borrell said he now intends to push for further sanctions on Russia.
In the wake of Ursula von der Leyen’s own unfortunate gaffe in triggering Article 16 of the delicate Northern Ireland Protocol last week, it has undoubtedly been a bad week for Commission leadership. In a context where only a small minority of Member States had called for enhanced Russian sanctions before the visit, it seems inevitable now that sanctions will have to be imposed as damage control.