Josep Borrell: Stronger EU is no rival to NATO

On Tuesday, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World, spoke at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think-tank. Mr. Borrell shared his vision of EU foreign policy, the future of US-EU relations, and pressing issues, as well as long-term global challenges.

As “the EU’s chief diplomat,” Mr. Borrell “is charged with shaping and carrying out the EU’s foreign, security, and defense policies.” As High Representative, he chairs the Foreign Affairs Council at the Council of the European Union ­– a governmental body made up of member states’ ministers of their respective policy areas (Mr. Borrell previously served as Foreign Minister of Spain).

The European Commission, then, is “responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU,” essentially the executive branch of the EU. The European Council ­– a body made up of EU heads of state ­– appoints 27 commissioners from each member state after their approval by the European Parliament. The Commission “has important international responsibilities such as trade, development, neighborhood policy and humanitarian aid,” hence Mr. Borrell’s second role as Vice President of the Commission.

Unsurprisingly, he sees his role as “a double hat job” wherein he must “ensure coherence between the external policies that matter to member states,” alongside “the communitarian,” or EU wide, “policies that are being managed and implemented by the Commission.” Central to this is making sure that all 27-member states are united, especially as the EU seeks to establish itself as a global leader in its own right.

“What I think is most needed at the EU is a common strategic culture to try to have the same understanding of the world. You cannot pretend to have a foreign policy, if you don’t understand the world in the same way, ” he said of his highest priority for the EU.

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy 
Josep Borrell is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

He referenced the EU’s founding as being “created inwards to solve problems among us”; additionally, “when it was first created, globalization was just starting and we were in a bipolar world.” Now, he says “we [the EU] are in a multipolar world and we have to look outwards because the problems are no longer among us; it’s among us and the rest of the world.”

Today’s problems, in his view, require a strong and coherent EU to safeguard what he considers European values – democracy, rule of law, and human rights – and to enable the EU to address global challenges such as climate change, recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and data governance – along with shaping global developments such as a rising China and aggressive Russia.

On the renewal of the transatlantic relationship between the US and EU: “It was music to our ears to listen to the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he addressed to the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)”. But he said these “messages of goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic” must lead to results. Last December, he had led the formation of the EU-US agenda for global change. The EU would like to see US-EU cooperation on global vaccination efforts, China, and security and defense.

Concerning Covid-19 vaccines, he stated: “The vaccines should be a public good, but nowadays, they’re more a mark of global power, a tool of power and global competition”. Although facing a shortage of vaccines, the EU last week “doubled [its] contribution to COVAX with another 500 million…specifically 100 million for the African Centers for Disease Control (CDC)”. He stressed the need for quicker vaccine production.

The goal of the EU’s strategic compass, Mr. Borrell said, is not to undermine NATO – which “remains essential and the framework” for US-European security cooperation – but instead to strengthen and define EU security and defense, and ultimately make it a more capable transatlantic “partner”. Some in the EU would like to see the EU have more autonomy and capacity to manage its own security, especially in its periphery: North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and Balkans.

In terms of priorities, he sees the reinvigoration of the Iran-nuclear deal (JCPOA) in which the US and Iran both return to full compliance as “the most urgent and important thing”. At present, it appears as though the US and Iran are suggesting that the other make the first move; however, the EU stance is that returning to compliance can serve as a baseline to further discussions, for example on Iran’s destabilizing behavior in its periphery.

The EU must also contend with a Russia that according to Mr. Borrell is “pursuing a confrontational policy,” both in areas such as Ukraine and the Balkans as well as towards the EU – on that last point, he said, “I think Russia is disconnecting from the EU”. He had faced heavy criticism at the EU for his perceived failure to influence Russia’s treatment of Alexei Navalny and of people protesting his imprisonment, but he said that Russia would not commit to a dialogue when challenged on human rights.

His Russia strategy would be to “push back when Russia violates international law, or humanitarian law; to contain Russia, when Russia increases the pressure on us, including disinformation and cyber attacks; and to engage…on selected areas where it is our interest to do so” – such as on Iran and climate change.  On applying sanctions to those responsible for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning, he mentioned the EU’s inaugural use of its “global human rights sanctions regime”.

The EU views China as a “partner, competitor, and a rival”. The EU would like to coordinate a transatlantic strategy on China, but also wants to be able to act autonomously, particularly when it concerns European businesses’ access to Chinese markets. The EU and China had completed an investment agreement for which talks began in 2013 and concluded December 30, 2020 – this had been seen by some in the US as a slight against US-EU cooperation on China. Mr. Borrell pointed out that the US had also “made an agreement with China without the EU”. The European Parliament has yet to ratify this new agreement. The EU would also like to be more involved in the “Indo-Pacific area,” particularly through working with Japan, India, Australia, and ASEAN countries.

Finally, in response to a question of EU expansion into the Balkans, Mr. Borrell noted that the EU is continuing to improve its eastern partnership – it’s “economic plan is up to 9 billion euros”. And while the EU requires countries meet certain standards before joining the EU, it also realizes the “growing geopolitical competition in the Balkans” – Russia, Turkey and even China are competing for influence in the region.

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