Borrell’s Freezing Struggle to Develop the EU’s Strategic Autonomy Amidst Tensions with Russia

  • Josep Borrell’s February trip to Moscow showed that the EU lacks a clear strategy for Russia. 
  • The EU will need to pursue its strategic autonomy while being careful not to exacerbate existing fault lines between the East and the West. 
  • Such strategic choices can only be made if the EU is able to overcome its internal divisions.  

Why is Borrell’s heat level freezing?

Answer: Deteriorating relations with Russia will make it difficult for Borrell to push for the EU’s strategic autonomy and simultaneously avoid further fragmentation of the international order.

In February 2021, EU High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission (HR/VP) Josep Borrell traveled to Russia with the hope of re-establishing constructive dialogue. Instead, during a joint press conference with Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Segrei Lavrov, the EU was accused of being an unreliable partner. Moreover, while the press conference was taking place, three EU diplomats were expelled by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Upon his return to Brussels, 70 Members of the European Parliament signed a draft letter demanding Borrell’s resignation or removal, describing the Moscow visit as humiliating. Borrell defended himself by stating that the trip achieved its goal: it clarified that the Kremlin had no desire of pursuing any partnership with the EU. 

Ever since the annexation of Crimea, certain aspects of Russian policy have been viewed as a potential challenge to EU security. The swift takeover of Crimea and covert operations in eastern Ukraine convinced the EU of Russian military capabilities and led to a loss of trust. The EU began to perceive Russia as ready to change borders in Eastern Europe by force. More recently, in 2019 the EU expressed concern regarding the alleged Russian violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and condemned Russian assasination attempts and alleged violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention through the use of banned nerve agents in 2018 and 2020. Finally, the EU’s dependence on Russian gas has emerged as a potential worry especially amid rising tensions between the two actors. The recent events only confirm that this downturn in relations is set to continue and reaffirms the need of the EU to pursue its strategic autonomy.

This is problematic, as Russia is likely to view any further development of military capabilities as threatening. Russia fears losing its influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Countries of Central Europe, the Baltics and the Western Balkans are included in the EU’s integration projects as either full or potential members. Countries further East have also been offered Eastern Partnership instruments. A militarily strong EU would be better equipped to defend these expansions. The EU would also be able to become more involved in resolving crises in the European neighborhood, such as those of Nagorno Karabakh, Libya or Syria, where Russia is active. Thus, such actions could give rise to a further deepening of existing fault lines between the EU and Russia, ultimately leading to further fragmentation of the international order. Such consequences could entail a failure of the EU’s foreign policy on Russia. 

The EU does not want to see the further fragmentation of the international order as this undermines its vital interests.  A rules based international order protects the EU from external threats and allows it to promote its economic interests through international trade and investment. Moreover, the decline of a liberal international order would undermine the EU’s international standing as it would symbolize the erosion of values that the EU is said to embody such as cooperation, openness, and a commitment to democracy and human rights.

Presumably to avoid this, following his trip Borrell has proposed a policy triad within the 5 principle framework for dealing with Russia. This three course action consists of pushing back against Russia whenever the country violates international norms, containing Russia when it seeks to increase pressure on the EU and engaging with it whenever it suits the EU. However, the same institutional limitations and internal divisions that brought the EU into this situation are likely to continue to hinder the EU’s pursuit of this three course action. 

What is driving Borrell?

Answer: Borrell is seeking to bring substance to the concept of strategic autonomy while maintaining the EU’s partnerships.

Borrell is a politician of an impressive professional background with a reputation of possessing great intellectual capacity and a strong temperament. When he took the post of HR/VP he had big goals for the EU. Borrell captured these goals in three guiding principles for his work, those of unity, realism, and partnership. In line with the principle of unity Borrell has pushed for a qualified majority vote in certain Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) matters in order to allow for quicker decision making. With regards to realism, according to Borrell, the EU must have a clearer vision of its strategic objectives and interests in order to avoid being drowned in great power struggles. He has further added that this can only be achieved by grasping the concept and practice of power and has therefore worked on bringing substance to the idea of strategic autonomy. Finally, Borrell has stated that the EU will need to preserve partnerships in order to be able to back up a rules based international order. However, the EU remains divided in certain foreign policy matters making it difficult for Borrell to adopt a realistic approach to the EU’s relations with other international actors and to maintain partnerships. 

What is changing Borrell’s temperature?

Answer: Internal divisions and institutional limitations hinder Borrell in forming a clear strategy for Russia.

The development of a clear strategy for Russia is hindered by internal divisions among EU Member States. Although the EU continues to impose sanctions on Russia for failure to comply with the Minsk agreements, it has not agreed on further sanctions as the EU is having trouble matching strategic interests with its economic ones. For instance, Germany does not wish to sacrifice the Nord Stream 2 pipeline since the project strengthens the German gas market. As a result, it has labeled the project as a commercial project, trying to “compartmentalize” what it claims is a project of a purely economic nature from geopolitical considerations, a view that has not been shared by the EU Commission or other Member States. Such division has given Russia the impression that it can continue to engage with Europe through bilateral relations with individual Member States of the EU without having to respect the EU’s rule based framework

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the EU lacks the institutional instruments that would allow it to overcome existing divisions among EU Member States and develop a coherent strategy and clear stance when it comes to Russia. Few Member States are willing to give up their national foreign policy to the EU by accepting majority voting in the European Council. Moreover, although Borrell is the EU’s top diplomat due to the nature of his position, he lacks the policy levers to help him bring to life the EU’s ambition for strategic autonomy. Although as HR/VP, Borrell has the power to coordinate the EU’s international policies, has oversight of the EU’s diplomatic corps and the power to initiate and implement CFSP matters, foreign policy decision making still very much remains in the hands of the European Council and thereby in the hands of the Member States (in accordance with Article 15 TEU). Only with a centralized governance model that would allow EU institutions to align goals, resources and management can European Strategic autonomy be achieved.  

Why does it matter to you?

Answer: The lack of a clear EU strategy for Russia reflects a broader struggle of the EU to put to practice the idea of strategic autonomy.

The EU’s struggle to define a strategy for Russia stems from the fact that the Common Security and Defence Policy (the main framework of European strategic autonomy in the area of defence) was never intended to address a security threat from Russia. The CSDP was developed in the 1990s and early 2000s as a mechanism limited to crisis management. It was understood that NATO would continue to be the pillar for Europe’s security and would be the one to address political-military threats to its Member States. Moreover, the CSDP was launched in the post-Cold War context, when it was perceived that Europe was free from an existential threat posed by a global nuclear power, reaffirming that the scheme was not intended to address a threat from Russia. The EU will therefore still need to rely on NATO for military deterrence. 

The EU could also take steps to deter Russia through non-military means such as further sanctions or by denying Russia its political, military and economic interests in the EU. However, such actions are unlikely to be taken due to the previously mentioned trade off between geopolitical and economic considerations. Namely, while disengagement with Russia would strengthen EU security it would also entail economic costs for EU citizens. For instance, Nord Stream 2 is expected to lower gas prices in Europe by as much as 13 to 32 percent. Therefore, divisions among Member States are expected to continue to exist, and the EU will struggle to autonomously push back against Russia.