Brussels (Brussels Morning): The attempt by the EU’s High Representative on foreign policy, Josep Borrell, to revitalize EU relations with Russia with his awkward visit to Moscow last Friday made for a heated confrontation when he attended the European Parliament’s plenary Tuesday. As a former MEP, Borrell withstood the criticism, insisting that official engagements such as his visit were of critical imporatnce given that Russia remains the EU’s biggest neighbour.
“We are at a crossroads and the choices we make will determine the power dynamics in the future, notably whether we advance towards a more cooperative or a more polarised model, “ Borrell said in defence of his stance.“The case of Alexei Navalny was at the centre of my tense exchange with Minister Lavrov.”
Borrell allowed that it had been made clear to him that the Russian side had no intention of engaging in a constructive discussion if the EU insisited on raising issues of human rights and political freedom. He said he was very concerned about the implications of Russia’s actions and attitude.
“Containment efforts should include combining action against disinformation, cyber-attacks and other possible hybrid challenges”, he said. A response could include sanctions, he added, promising that he would put forward “concrete proposals,”
Failure not only Borrell’s fault
For the Conservatives’ EPP, German MEP Michael Gahler said Borrell’s Moscow visit had served as an eye opener for “all of those who had illusions about the character of the Kremlin”.
“The visit as such, but especially the infamous press conference, sparked outrage among many MEPs in my group. The behaviour of Foreign Minister Lavrov was unfriendly, uncooperative and unacceptable.”
MEPs made clear they would have wanted Borrell to rebuff Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statements and wished he had been more clear in condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict with Ukraine. Others questioned whether the press conference with his counterpart should have been held.
“Russians have enough of Putin’s kleptocracy, while ordinary people face hardship. Moscow abused the visit by HRVP Borrell to humiliate and offend the EU,” Kati Piri, for the Socialists, stated, a reference to the expulsion of three European diplomats from Russia last Friday.
“Would this have happened, had the EU leaders taken a tougher stance? But instead, the European Council has failed to put any meaningful sanctions on Russia, after the assassination attempt on Navalny,” Piri noted, while calling for sanctions against President Putin and the Russian top leadership.
Tuesday’s plenary session featured calls by some MEPs for Borrell’s resignation while others expressing frustration at the EU’s inability to speak with one voice, citing Hungary’s President Orban and the Moscow-friendly government of Cyprus as member states resistant to taking more assertive political action against Russia.
“It was a failure, but it is also true that you had been dealt a very bad hand because of the lack of unity in the Council,” foreign policy heavyweight, the German MEP Reinhard Bütikofer (Greens) conceded.
“Russia played foul, so let’s stand up to them. I do object to those that now call for your resignation. The dire situation in EU-Russia relations has deeper roots so let’s not fall into a trap.”
Check mate by Lavrov
Some MEPs argued that the Russian government has no interest in reversing the negative trend in EU-Russia relations.
“In Moscow Lavrov checkmated High Representative Borrell in four moves,” Swedish Member Charlie Weimars from the Conservative’s ECR declared.
“You compromised your credibility, High Representative, damaged your office, and undermined the foreign and security interests of member states. You did not threaten sanctions or harshly condemn the arrest of Navalny, nor did you censure the aggression in the Ukraine or denounce Russia when they declared our diplomats persona non grata,” Weimers concluded.
Others concurred, calling for realism rathern than naivety in the EU’s policy approach to Russia.
“This visit to Moscow had extremely bad timing,” Estonian MEP Urmas Paet from the Liberals opined. Noting that Russia had made its geopolitical choices for the time being, he hoped the EU would draw its own quick conclusions about what had happened and take decisive action by including “human rights violators on the sanctions list and the suspension of Nord Stream 2, which is contrary to European energy security policy.”
Continued engagement with Russia
“I think it was the right time to use all of our strength and our force to set out our position on the Navalny case. So how can you say I did not raise the issue or defended the public demonstrations?” Borrell responded, after listening to a slew of mostly negative comments. “Has this undermined the opposition in Russia? I do not see how it could have done that.”
Some might think this was the wrong time while others might think “it was the right time to go to clearly set out our position in person,” he added with some irritation. Did they think he should have stayed at his desk in Brussels writing statements instead?
“For some, the problem is that the visit happened,” Borrell claimed, pointing out that 19 European ministerial delegations had visited Russia in recent years. “We must find ways of continuing to engage with Russian society. An important part of the Russia population wishes to retain strong links with the EU”, he asserted.