"The US is very keen on Europeans taking on more strategic responsibilities": A conversation with Josep Borrell

Agenda Pública

25 mins - 19 de Mayo de 2023, 07:05

Good afternoon, everyone. From the heart of Florence in Italy. We are at the Andrea Bocelli and Franco Zeffirelli foundations. However, we are not here to sing or to act, but we are here to follow the State of the Union conference currently underway at the European University Institute. My name is Fabrizio Tassinari, and I'm the executive director of the School of Transnational Governance here at the EUI. And I will be your moderator for this hopefully insightful conversation organised by Agenda Pública with a very special guest, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell. A warm welcome. Before kicking off, I would like to also introduce the very distinguished panel that we have today to discuss with you. On my left is Ben Hall, who is the Europe editor for the Financial Times. On my right, Alicia García-Herrero, who is senior research fellow at Bruegel and chief economist at Natixis, and Catherine Fieschi, who is the incoming Director for European Policy and Strategic Outreach at the Open Society Foundations. Welcome to you all. So High Representative... Let us kick off with really what is on your table at the moment. The war in Ukraine has entered its 15th month, and we are now all expecting this Ukrainian counter offensive.

You spoke earlier today at the State of the Union that you're thinking a lot about ammunition as one of your topics. And we have seen President Zelensky in Europe in the past couple of days. So it would be good to hear your thoughts. We have witnessed as well over the past couple of weeks, I would say, a vigorous debate on China and on discussions over strategic autonomy balanced by a transatlantic conversation on economic security. And it would be really good to hear your take. But above all, I would say the question is, as the balance sheet seen from your perch, how is it looking for European foreign policy?

Josep Borrell
On my table, there is the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. There are the relations with Israel and the Palestinian issue. There is the Sudan civil war and rescue of the European citizens. There is the preparation of the summit with Latin American countries. There is not just war in Ukraine. But if we have to look for the main, main structural issue, certainly the Russian invasion of Ukraine and our support to Ukraine continues. A very high-end agenda. And we have to provide ammunition because we provide guns. Guns without ammunitions, really useless. Secondly, the emergency of China. And how do we reshape our position in the Triangle, between the US, China, and the EU? And finally, but not less important, our relationship with the rest. It's been said the west and the rest. Well, it's simplification, certainly, but there are the rest which are not China, not US, not the west in general terms. And it is more and more important because it's not clear what the position of many important countries is in the rest. And we have to reach out much better and strongly and more positively with them. And this requires a lot of work indeed.

Fabrizio Tassinari
Indeed, thank you very much. And let us indeed start to dig a little bit deeper into some of these questions. Ben, you have been chronicling for the FT precisely the latest developments in the war, which has become a lot about attrition, but now we are probably talking about a counter offensive. So how does the situation look from your perch?

Ben Hall
Well, there's a huge amount riding on this counteroffensive for Ukraine, not only in terms of retaking occupied territory, but I think also in terms of making the case or reaffirming the case to its allies and supporters to maintain support. There has to be some hope of a military breakthrough. So I just wonder from your point of view, Mr. Borrell, how much rides on this offensive in terms of maintaining that alliance, particularly as we look to 2024 and a US election year, but also a year when Europeans will also start to wonder whether they should maintain tough sanctions, maintain high levels of military support for Ukraine. Is this a make-or-break moment for Ukraine?

Josep Borrell
Frankly, I don't know. What I know is that the battle continues, and it will continue, that Russia has been unable to make any advance. From the country, they have been withdrawing. There are even strong divisions among them. I just heard the command of the banknote companies complaining that the Russian army is not providing ammunition to them and they're going to withdraw from the Bakhmut Front without being able to take it. I heard Putin saying that he has military objectives and as long as he hasn’t gotten any results, he will continue the fight. So there is little hope that the Russian invasion could finish because of a Russian withdrawal. And in the meantime, we have to continue supporting Ukraine because Ukraine relies critically on the support of their western allies. Well, the most important part of the military support comes from the US. Ours is not negligible, but it is less important, but our economic and financial support is very important, bigger than anyone else. So we have to continue support in Ukraine. I don't know what's going to happen. I am sure unhappily that the war will continue because Putin wants to do it. And let's see what's happening. It seems that peace talks, everybody's talking about that, but I don't see Russia ready to do it.

Ben Hall
Can Russia be brought to a point on the battlefield where it is ready to talk? And at what stage do you think differences might re-emerge within Europe about the nature of a negotiated solution to this war?
The Europeans are very united at the moment. There was a bit of a journey to get there. It's not guaranteed to last.
Josep Borrell
Nothing is guaranteed in life. And I know that there are some member states, some, few, but some, that are not supporting the sanctions. They are voting in favour because otherwise it would not be possible to adopt sanctions regimes because it requires unanimity, but they don't trust it. But these are very few cases. The rest are strongly united about the fact that we need sanctions. What does it mean, sanctions? The word ‘sanctions’ doesn't exist in the treaties. Go to the treaties. ‘Sanctions’ does not appear anywhere. We talk about restrictive measures. We restrict. What do we restrict? Buying and selling. We don't want to pay in order to feed the war machine of Russia. We don't want to buy, and we don't want to sell them materials, the things that Russia needs to continue making the war machine working. That's what we do. We don't buy gas, we don't sell chips. Restrictive measures. It's logical. No? If you want to stop a war machine you don't give them money buying things and you don't give them the things that they need in order to keep the war machine working. That's what we are trying to do. And it looks quite logical.

Would it be logical to continue selling the electronics that Russia needs to continue producing tanks? No. Would it be logical to continue sending money to Russia buying gas and oil? No.

Ben Hall
But sanctions are one thing, and they have a tendency to act as a ratchet. It's very hard to undo them. Active military support, well, providing sophisticated weapons, more longer-range weapons on an open-ended basis is another one. But maybe I could just shift the conversation slightly to the question of strategic autonomy. The idea that Europe should take more responsibility for its own security and economic destiny. President Macron said that the debate about strategic autonomy had been won.
But there are plenty of other political leaders in Europe who would say that the war has proven Europe's reliance on America for its security. And the danger in pursuing strategic autonomy is that you weaken that American commitment.
Where do you see this debate?

Josep Borrell
Well, this is a theological debate.

Ben Hall
It's a real debate though, it's not just theological, it's a visceral debate.

Josep Borrell
But visceral theological debates are also very visual, I'm sure. And in this church there has been theological debate about the sex of the angels. Look, let's be practical. If the word strategic autonomy creates concerns, let's talk about strategic responsibility. Europe has to take more responsibility for their own defence. There is no alternative to NATO for the territorial defence of Europe. So let's make things clear. Nobody in Europe is willing to build a European NATO. NATO, transatlantic unity, is the only territorial defence of Europe that works. But apart from that, we Europeans, we need to take our part of the burden. The US is asking for it. I think the most interested in Europeans taking more responsibilities is the US. A stronger Europe will be a stronger light. So I think it's in the interest of NATO to have a stronger Europe, and then the Europeans will have to face problems that NATO will not solve, and we should be able to deal with them on our own. Apart from other issues in the Indo-Pacific and China, in our immediate neighbourhood, we need to have the capacity to act together, having each one of us more capacities and pulling them, because to increase the defence capabilities of each member state on their side without a vision ensemble, it would be a big waste of money.

Imagine that in the US. Each state was creating their own army without taking into account what's happening with the other armies of the 50 states of the Union. It would be crazy.

Ben Hall
But you have a Polish government that's buying lots of American weapons. But anyway…

Josep Borrell
I am at all against buying American weapons, but I am most strongly convinced that if you want to have a certain strategic responsibility, you also have to have your own industrial capacities.

Fabrizio Tassinari
Thank you very much, Ben. And in a way, I would say what we are going to move on to now is a good segway to this conversation about strategic autonomy. Alicia, you spoke yesterday at the State of the Union a lot about disruption of value chains. So how does this square with this consensus, if there is one transatlantic on China or lack of it, and also the more pressing questions, even about economic security as an agenda emerging from the United States?

Alicia García-Herrero
Well, thanks very much. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to ask questions. I'm only going to introduce the topic and then ask the key questions to whom knows much more than me as to how Europe should go about this. We already know how the US wants to go about it, and we have had two diverging, I would say speeches, I think Janet Yellen and Jack Sullivan have, which is interesting, a slightly different view of how to go about it. But in both cases, though, and this is something we need to realise as Europeans the idea that trade is just an economic sphere. It has disappeared, vanished not only from the US side, but quite frankly, since the very beginning, from the Chinese side. It's never been there. It has never been there. It's always been our take in Europe that multilateralism was basically the framework through which we could separate trade with everything else. But we also know that that framework is basically not working. So we should, I think, as Europeans, realise that trade and security can no longer be spoken about separately. As an economist, I have to say that I am more of a trade expert than a security expert.

But I'm somehow shifting simply because I realise that in the era of economies of scale, green energy is about economies of scale. We can see that very clearly. There is no such thing as a trade impulse without a security angle because you become enormously dependent on the economy that has the ability, whether it's through massive investment or its own size, to create those dependencies. And China has learned its way that economic dependence so far, given that it so far, I say, doesn't have the ability to fight back militarily in the light of containment. Or I would say so far, nobody denies the word containment from the US. Economic dependence is the way to go. And I think we Europeans need to understand that that's a tool, that is not only a trade tool, it's a trade security tool. And China is using that tool.
We are increasingly dependent on China. Even Germany has a trade deficit with China. China is its largest trading partner on the import side, and most of that is for the energy transition.
So because that's not going to change anytime soon, I think we need to realise that that dependence will push us basically away if we don't do anything, away from that transatlantic alliance that ensures our military security, or security.

So that's the tension. That's the tension. Using economic dependence as a way to bring us away from what is our natural, as I hear correctly, our natural space, security-wise. How can we minimise that risk? So that we are not embedded, basically, I mean, pushed away from our natural security angle through economic dependence. And that's where the de-risking, which I understand is not what the US wants to do. We might have to define a new de-risking strategy, European de-risking strategy, but it has to come because otherwise we'll be in this very difficult situation. Now, really my question, can we avoid that? And how?

Josep Borrell
That's a complex matter. We have dependencies on some important issues, critical materials or renewable technologies. And certainly, these dependencies may become dangerous. So we have to decrease our dangerous dependencies.
Today we are more dependent on China for some things than we were from Russia on gas.
But at the same time, we cannot, and we will not make a blockage to the Chinese technological and economic development. So which is the balance point? This has to be discussed because it's very easy to say de-risking everybody is against risk, so everybody is in favour of de-risking but let's put words to the music. What is the risk? Which are the risks, and how do we de-risk?
In fact, the one who invented de-risking is China. China is de-risking. Where is China investing? In the Indo-Pacific area.
The most important investor in the Indo-Pacific area is China, why? Because they want to put their capacities out of the possible sanctions regime from the west. And take care with, say, “No, I'm not going to trade more with China. We'll trade with a neighbour.” But this neighbour maybe will be dependent on China in order to trade with us.

So we create dependencies to a second degree. I depend on you. And you depend on him. So in the end, I depend on you. So take care because de-risking comes with risk. So it's not just a slogan. It's not just a nice phrase. It's a complex reality that needs to be studied case by case in order to identify the risk and to de-risk without creating new risk and without willing to say, well, “I will stop the emergency of China as a power”. It's not in our will. The important thing is how China is going to use its power.

Fabrizio Tassinari
Thank you. So, in a way, the opposite of a theological question is very convenient. Let us move on to you, Catherine. You are a specialist on comparative politics and in a sense, your contribution is on the domestic contexts and even sources of foreign policy within Europe.

Catherine Fieschi
Thank you. And I realise I come as a coda to a foreign policy discussion, but I have to say that everything that I've heard and with which I wholeheartedly agree, I would argue, is premised on the consent of citizens. And Ben Hall raised the issue of 2024 and the US elections and 2024 and the European elections. And this morning, in some of the State of the Union sessions, we were given some very alarming numbers, alarming numbers regarding so-called solidarity fatigue. We were given alarming numbers in terms of what worries national publics most.
And, for example, here we are a year into the war, and national publics are far less worried, with some geographical nuances, of course, but they tend to be far less worried, for example, about the war and still much more worried about inflation and the rise in prices.
So I guess my question is so much of what we want to do and so much of your mission and Europe's mission as a potential foreign policy power is premised on making sure that European citizens really will consent to the kind of politics and the expenses and the efforts of the kinds of politics that will secure strategic autonomy that will link to some de-risking.

How confident are you that they can be persuaded? And also, what can the European foreign policy voices do to help to persuade them, to help to persuade European citizens that there's an effort to be made financial, political, ideological, to keep this unity, and to get this consent?

Josep Borrell
I am not confident in almost anything. So how confident are you? I am not confident. And we are democracies. And Putin believes that democracies are weak, that public opinion regimes are by nature controversial because people express freely their point of view and their concerns. And this creates a state of the opinion that can allow governments to change their minds. I'm sure Putin was convinced that the Europeans would not be able to keep the unity because of the gas dependency, or they will not afford to support Ukraine because they will cut the gas, and people will have to face very expensive bills, and they will be against that. Well, we faced this summer very expensive bills. They are very expensive, not so much, they are decreasing, but still they are high. So, yes, certainly there are opinions in our societies who say, why should I be paying for this war? For how long? For how much? This is unavoidable and this is part of democracy. Different opinions. But the poll says that the majority of the Europeans understand that we have to support Ukraine. This is what the poll says with geographical nuances, certainly. And there are opinions that say until when and for what?

And this is the job of the politicians. Pedagogy, explain inside and outside what's going on, what's happening, and why we have to continue supporting Ukraine. I have a lot of friends, clever people, intelligent, experienced, who discussed with me saying that there is not the slightest chance for Ukraine to resist. So the longer you support Ukraine, the longer the war will be. Okay? The question is what's happening if we stop supporting Ukraine? Put me in the scenario. What's happening? Peace will come. Yes, yes. Peace. Peace. Peace, please. Peace. What kind of a peace? Do you want in Kiev, the same regime that in Belarus? Do you want Ukraine being occupied by the Russian troops and them being on the Polish border? You want Putin to be reaffirmed by their capacity to win by force, by brutal force? Who is next? This is the thing that has to be explained to the public opinion. And nothing comes for free. Nothing comes for free. This angelical approach of, yes, I am in favour of peace. I am in favour of peace. You know who's more in favour of peace? The Ukrainians. Ukrainians certainly are in favour of peace. But what kind of a peace?

Catherine Fieschi
Do you think that Europe, that the EU can use its own voice to do some of that pedagogy and not just the national-level politicians more directly?

Josep Borrell
Well, everybody has to do its part. Certainly in a member stage, it will not mention the government is asking for the sanctions to stop. It's difficult that my voice could instil a feeling of controversy at the national level. My role is not to participate in national controversies, but I have enough work trying to reach out with third countries.

Catherine Fieschi

Fabrizio Tassinari
Well, having said that, being as we are in a university environment, I can only agree, the more pedagogy we can have, the better at all levels. We have covered a lot of ground, but we have also been very diligent with time, to my surprise. So this leaves me the time for one last question before then we wrap up. And this relates to some of the things you talked about this morning in relation to understanding the rest and understanding the global south. And these are all terms that we will need to refine at some point what we mean by that. But what I would like to ask you is, if we do listen to Brazil, India, South Africa, what are they trying to tell us that we should listen to?

Josep Borrell
First, there is a strong dependency on Russia on some of these countries. It's not just free thinking. The Indian army has a strong dependency on Russian warfare and will for years to come. And then there is the heritage of the past. You would not convince South African people, Russia supporting them and the fight against Apartheid, and we didn't. And then the accusation of double standards comes immediately. And in Latin America there is still this anti-imperialism feeling, very lively. And when they say yes, you have to support democracy. Democracy, yes, but you didn't support democracy all the time. And there are some experiences that are still very alive in the memory of the people. We have to understand that history and geography matters a lot. And you have to try not to convince intellectually because in some cases it's impossible, but to put on the table the causes and the consequences. Mainly the consequences, because on the causes we will not agree. NATO to expansion, yes, NATO to expansion no. But look at the consequences. Which are the consequences? High prices of energy and food. Who is responsible for that? And then your Russia propaganda is very effective because they spend much more resources on that than us.

And sanctions, what is the role of the sanctions? I've been talking with one important leader of Latin America who told me “look, what you are doing on the sanctions against Russia is the same thing that Judith did in Versailles against Germany after the end of the First World War that brought the Second World War.” I said, “My God, but that has nothing to do with it.” Nothing to do. Germany was condemned to pay war reparations, maybe too big, certainly too big. And then happened, what happened? But you cannot make a comparison with these two different things. So once again we have to invest more on explaining what's going on. What's going on? What has happened? If you go to Africa and Latin America, there is the anti-imperialism feeling. In Africa there is the anti-colonialism feeling. Don't believe that it has vanished- it was not so long ago. And in Africa people told you, “Okay, we share your values, but we don't share the same priorities.” So we have to take into account their priorities and don't believe that our priorities are their priorities. And third, they say, “come on, how much have you invested in Ukraine in one year?” When you have a problem, everybody has a problem.

When I have a problem, do you consider it also your problem? This has to be discussed, figures in mind, not about wishful thinking or patronising, but with facts, facts and figures. And it's a long discussion and you have to invest much more on that. And we don't invest enough on this discussion with third.

Fabrizio Tassinari
I agree. And actually, on that note, often these conversations end up raising even more questions than answers. But I think this was precisely the purpose and I personally feel we covered a lot of ground in this half hour. All I would like to thank first of all Agenda Pública and the European University Institute for organising this session. Ben Hall, Alicia Garcia Herrero and Catherine Fieschi for the questions. And, of course, you, High Representative Borrell, for joining us today. And to all of you tuning in, goodbye and good afternoon.
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