Josep Borrell. Photo: Wikipedia

A “colorful past” is putting mildly. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, whom the European Council has nominated to become the EU’s next foreign-policy chief, was forced to step down as Spain’s Socialist candidate for prime minister in 2000 over corruption allegations against his party, and was last year fined by Spain’s securities regulator for insider trading.

He is also no stranger to the diplomatic gaffe. Mocking American Independence, he once said that “all they did was kill four Indians but apart from that it was very easy,” while his criticisms of Catalan’s attempted independence from Spain have drawn strong rebukes.

In October, Borrell could be taking over from Federica Mogherini, who has been the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy since 2014, and who leaves with mixed reviews. Granted, she arrived in the post with relatively little experience, and the position had only been created five years earlier. She was “plucked from relative obscurity … in early 2014 to become Italy’s youngest foreign minister” and then, nine months later, appointed the EU’s top diplomat.

EU foreign policy, which was nascent at best when Mogherini arrived to the job, has certainly become bolder under her watch. She oversaw the EU’s Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy, issued in 2016, which really for the first time tried to lay out how the EU’s internal values on, say, democracy and human rights, would affect its role as a global actor.

In Asia, the EU has moved to sanction Cambodia for democratic backsliding and threatens the same on Myanmar. It has touted its environmentalist credentials by promising to stop imports of palm oil, greatly frustrating Malaysia and Indonesia, the two largest producers of the commodity. It has also taken a more robust line on claimants respecting international laws in the South China Sea dispute. In April, the EU for the first time described China as a “systemic rival,” a sign of Brussels’ toughening stance on Beijing’s expansionism.

Mogherini departs in October having promised to create a more vocal and active Europe on the world stage, though she leaves behind a continental bloc in a state of geopolitical existentialism. Indeed, many think that she could have gone much further in forcing an assertive and confident foreign policy

Mogherini departs in October having promised to create a more vocal and active Europe on the world stage, though she leaves behind a continental bloc in a state of geopolitical existentialism. Indeed, many think that she could have gone much further in forcing an assertive and confident foreign policy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in May that “there is no doubt that Europe needs to reposition itself in a changed world,” while Michel Barnier, the former European commissioner and French foreign minister, commented the same month: “Europe still wields significant soft power, but we remain a hard-power minnow.… Europe needs a second leg to stand on.” Judy Dempsey, a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote in June: “Europe is in the throes of a geostrategic crisis.… As a bloc, the union cannot do defense and it cannot do hard power because its philosophy is anchored on a peace project,”

Questions remain over whether Borrell can sort out this “geostrategic crisis.” Clearly, he seems to agree there are fundamental problems. In an interview in May, he noted that Europeans “have been” relevant worldwide, though adding that “I believe we are steadily losing influence as Europeans, and that when we have intervened, we have done so as states,” as opposed to the EU itself. He also had strong words about the EU’s foreign-affairs bureaucracy. “The Foreign Affairs Council is more a valley of tears than a center of decision-making, because it’s where all the open sores of humanity come,” he said. “They tell us their sufferings, we express our condolence and concern … but no capacity for action comes out of it and we just move on to the next one.”

But there is reason to doubt whether he would build a more assertive Europe. For a start, he has occasionally shown the characteristics that typify much of the Western European left: geopolitically introverted, readily anti-American and often considered soft, even sympathizing, on authoritarian regimes.

When asked in May who are the main enemies of Europe, he mentioned the likes of Russia and China, but he said the “worst [threats] are the ones on the inside,” meaning autocratic Hungary and populist leaders of EU nations. Borrell’s past comments on the Iranian regime have certainly contained more than a whiff of false equivalency. Despite equating Vladimir Putin with “the revival of Imperial Russia,” last year he agreed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to develop a joint cybersecurity working group to address disinformation, thereby trying to address the situation with one of the main offenders.

On China, his comments are less clear cut. Spain hasn’t yet joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though it was a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As Spain’s foreign minister, Borrell was certainly not hawkish against Beijing, and in many ways repeated the same confused tones of other European leaders who still don’t know whether to risk losing Chinese investment by opposing its global expansion. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, he said the BRI “is proof that China is no longer considering itself a net receiver and starts considering itself a contributor to the world, and this is something Spain welcomes.”

But how much of this is to do with the Spanish government’s position, not his? Certainly he appeared more forceful about defending a liberal international order before that job. In 2006, when handing out a human-rights award as European Parliament president, a position he served between 2004 and 2007, he stated: “As Europeans, we have a special duty to defend and promote human rights in the world; therefore we should never tolerate the breach of human dignity and suppression of democratic values on our own soil and beyond.” The same year he warned that Europe cannot “exchange human rights for energy resources,” a reference to certain nations’ defense of the Russian government in exchange for oil.

Neither is he a friend of religious bigots, and reportedly helped to keep references of Christianity out of a European charter. “When it comes to democracy, human rights and equality, God is a recent convert. He was comfortable for centuries with slavery,” he has apparently said.

Democrats in Asia will certainly hope that he brings his belief that Europeans have a “special duty to defend and promote human rights in the world” to his new job. He will inherit an ongoing review of Cambodia’s place in an EU preferential trade deal, and it might help that the next EU ambassador to Cambodia, arriving in September, is slated to be fellow Spaniard Carmen Moreno, who was formerly the Spanish ambassador to several Southeast Asian nations.

Borrell will also have to decide whether the EU sanctions Myanmar. Under Mogherini, the EU took the line that “principled pragmatism will guide our external action in the years ahead.” But it has failed to come to terms of whether it will be more principled or more pragmatic, something that continues to cloud its judgment when dealing with foreign nations. Borrell may have to put his foot down on one of these two sides.

The bloc’s relations with Japan are naturally improving, and he ought not have major problems advancing them. A larger question will be whether the EU focuses on multilateral negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or prefers to deal bilaterally; its recently signed free-trade agreement with Vietnam, its first in Southeast Asia, could serve as a template for more with the region’s nations. Singapore would probably want to be next, after its planned FTA with the EU has stalled for years.

But his biggest challenge will be China. A major, if somewhat equivocal, statement has been made when the EU called China a “systemic rival” this year. Whether this means clear containment of Chinese expansionism and blocking Chinese technology from European markets, along the lines of the US, is unclear. Many EU member states, mostly the Eastern, but also increasingly the Western ones, are keen to attract as much Chinese investment as possible, and a scrap between the rights of member states to accept such investment and the bloc’s views on the matter could come to a head in the coming years.

But it won’t be Borrell’s decision to make alone – and he probably won’t be main decision-maker. Ursula von der Leyen, the former German defense minister who on Wednesday was confirmed as the next European Commission president, the bloc’s top job, has often been a critic of China.

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