The EU and its officials should not alienate the world at a time when it is in need of partners in the midst of the Ukraine crisis
Compared to Borrell, his predecessor Federica Mogherini inherited a relatively easier set of global circumstances and focused more on issues like brokering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and less on more immediate issues like Russia despite its 2014 annexation of Crimea. With the twin challenges of Russia and China, Borrell faces a more existential crisis amidst a complete restructuring of the European security order. In the second week of October, Borrell delivered two speeches—the first addressed to EU delegations around the world, the second during the inauguration of the European Diplomatic Academy at the prestigious College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. The speeches were delivered as the European Commission announced its latest and eighth package of sanctions against Russia amidst Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons and his sham referendums in Ukraine. Ordinarily, even in Europe, these speeches, considered ‘internal events’, would not have warranted much attention. Instead, the EU Foreign Policy Chief’s scathing remarks, where he referred to Europe as a garden and the rest of the world as a jungle waiting to invade the garden, have garnered controversy across the globe. This offensive geopolitical metaphor with its misplaced supremacist undertones has managed to offend entire continents, particularly but not just citizens in the Global South. Scholars, such as Mohamad Forough from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, have rightfully pointed out how the foundations of European prosperity are based on the brutal plundering and exploitation of the continent’s former colonies. Government officials from Ethiopia to Canada to the United Arab Emirates expressed offence at the discriminatory comments. Unsurprisingly, the criticism found its way to India, as evident in this podcast by The Hindu’s Amit Baruah with scholar Atul Mishra. In his communique, Borrell said it all—from the importance of winning narratives and identity being the defining factor in present-day politics, to Europe’s miscalculations on energy, market, and security policy and the necessity of power in international relations. Indeed, Russia’s weaponisation of Europe’s energy dependence, China’s weaponisation of markets and supply chains, and unpredictability surrounding Europe’s taken-for-granted American security, have exposed Europe’s limitations, vulnerabilities, and the perils of a business-over-all-else approach. As Europe grapples with the repercussions of its flawed separation of geoeconomics from geopolitics, Borrell laid out the stark uncensored reality of present-day Europe in an era of grave geopolitical upheaval and competing interests and insecurity. But the one undiplomatic analogy overshadowed the rest of the speech.
With the twin challenges of Russia and China, Borrell faces a more existential crisis amidst a complete restructuring of the European security order.
In fact, there were a number of humbling talking points in his speech that were eclipsed. Borrell reprimanded the EU’s diplomats for lacking respect and empathy towards those in their host countries. Where he talked about the ‘battle for narratives’, which the Russians and Chinese are apparently winning; instead of expecting others to speak European languages, he emphasised the importance of European diplomats transmitting Europe’s messaging internationally through local languages. Instead of the regular European attitude of globally chastising and lecturing, he expressed a matter-of-fact understanding that middle powers such as India, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, presumably the ‘jungle’, also look out for their interests. He acknowledged the widespread emotions of people in the Global South who feel that “they are not receiving their part according to their population and economic weight and a global system that does not deliver”. While mentioning the “democracies vs authoritarians” divide, Borrell even acknowledged the presence of authoritarian regimes on Europe’s side. Whether he meant regimes like Viktor Orban’s Hungary that are EU member states teetering on the brink of authoritarianism and rule-of-law disputes with Brussels, or he meant authoritarian third countries around the world with whom the EU cooperates, is unclear. But to even acknowledge these in the face of trendy but hypocritical European “values over interests” rhetoric was novel. Yet, such positives went unnoticed at a time when Europe is in desperate need of global support against Russia’s war in Ukraine and is in search of new international partnerships, particularly in the realms of energy and trade, and in the Indo-Pacific. In geopolitics, where words seem to matter as much as actions, such rhetoric goes against Europe’s strategic interests and reinforces the perception that Europeans still consider themselves superior to the rest, while Russia and China treat others as equals, thereby, allowing them to win ‘the battle of narratives’ despite their heinous deeds. Europe may be rightfully concerned about sections of the world abstaining from criticising Russia at the United Nations, but once again, this rhetoric does not help persuade countries from doing otherwise, and even provides an opening to further the Kremlin’s propaganda. In fact, Russian government spokeswoman Maria Zhakharova, was amongst the first to seize the moment and remind the world of Europe’s negative colonial history in relation to Borrell’s speech. Besides, this sort of commentary encourages and fits in perfectly with narratives of far-right politicians in Europe, who are most often anti-EU and against the very institutions that Borrell represents.
The EU Foreign Policy Chief’s scathing remarks, where he referred to Europe as a garden and the rest of the world as a jungle waiting to invade the garden, have garnered controversy across the globe.
However, strikingly and rather contradictorily, underneath the veneer of colonialist undertones was also a refreshingly honest and introspective assessment, so rare in the land of staid Brussels bureaucracy, of Europe’s staggering place in the world. But human nature tends to magnify the negative and downplay the positive, and Borrell’s clarifications in his personal blog could not mitigate the damage done. Just days before Borrell's speeches, negotiations for the India-UK Free Trade deal were held hostage after then British Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s provocative comments on Indian immigrants in Britain, in the midst of a serious economic crisis in Britain. In its global interactions and dealings, Europe cannot feign indifference to its colonist past and baggage—baggage that many other countries are free from. As influential Brussels-based commentator Shada Islam points out, “Europe’s history of empire and colonialism remains an important obstacle in forging a truly influential geopolitical Europe”, and divisive “us and them” tropes are not helpful. For the EU and its member states that are navigating perilous times, contrary to the popular idiom, all publicity is not good publicity. At this juncture, the Europeans cannot afford disastrous faux pas in their diplomacy and are not doing themselves any favours by alienating parts of the world.
Europe may be rightfully concerned about sections of the world abstaining from criticising Russia at the United Nations, but once again, this rhetoric does not help persuade countries from doing otherwise, and even provides an opening to further the Kremlin’s propaganda.
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Shairee Malhotra is Associate Fellow, Europe with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her areas of work include Indian foreign policy with a focus on EU-India relations, ...Read More +