MEPs set to demand that Borrell quits as EU foreign affairs chief after Russia trip

Some members are believed to be drafting a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, calling for Josep Borrell, a former MEP, to step down in the wake of the visit.
European Commission Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

08 Feb 2021

Borrell’s visit to Russia coincided with the expulsion of EU diplomats and the Renew Europe group is among those who have expressed “concern and disappointment” at both the visit of Borrell and his comments at a press conference with the Russian Foreign Minister.

Russia expelled three European diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for allegedly attending demonstrations in support of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

But MEPs are angry that Borrell did not raise the issue at the briefing. On Monday, a Commission spokesman strongly defended Borrell, saying he became aware of the expulsions only after the briefing. It is believed he got the news from Twitter after the press conference.

The spokesman also denied any knowledge of the MEP letter, saying, “we have received no such letter.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the expulsions.

The much-criticised visit - along with EU/Russia relations - will be debated by MEPs on Tuesday, EU foreign affairs ministers on 22 February and an EU summit next month.

“Holding a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov while the leading opposition politician is again on politically-motivated trials, does not help his case and is a slap in the face for all those who defend democracy” Sandra Kalniete, EPP

In a statement, Renew Europe said, “Borrell has questions to answer about his bungled Moscow trip in the European Parliament this week. The European Council must act by sanctioning those close to the Russian President and those who undermine the human rights of their own citizens, including Alexei Navalny.

In a blog on Sunday, Borrell, the EU’s high representative, described a “very complicated visit”, adding, “At times the discussion with my Russian counterpart reached high levels of tension, as I called for Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as for a full and impartial investigation into his assassination attempt.”

“An aggressively-staged press conference and the expulsion of three EU diplomats during my visit indicate that the Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU.”

“While not fully unexpected, this is regrettable, also, dare I say, from a Russian strategic perspective. We will have to draw the consequences,” the blog added.

The Commission spokesman told reporters at a Commission briefing, “The College [of Commissioners] will take a look at this very sensitive trip later this week but the President has given her full support for the trip and also to Josep Borrell.”

“The College needs to hear back from him on his trip so that, perhaps, we can learn from the lessons from what happened. But I stress that the trip was necessary. It was a difficult meeting and there was frank dialogue with the Russian authorities about what is our complex relationship with Russia.”

“Borrell has questions to answer about his bungled Moscow trip in the European Parliament this week. The European Council must act by sanctioning those close to the Russian President and those who undermine the human rights of their own citizens, including Alexei Navalny” Renew Europe statement

He added, “A trip like this cannot be judged a success or failure based on just what happens in one part of that trip. The main aim was to deliver some firm clear messages from the EU about Navalny and Russia’s role in Europe and this was done.”

“Russia’s reaction to the trip offered a clean indication as to where Russia wants to go and we will have to see what consequences can be drawn from this. But there are no regrets that we went there. It was to engage with our partners on their home turf and on some difficult issues.”

He said Vladimir Putin was told “what we expect and what are concerned about”. Borrell had “delivered the EU’s clear position” and spoken about “how to reverse the negative trend in our relations.”

The spokesman said, “We condemn these expulsions. There is no justification for them and we stressed that this is unacceptable. How we might react, for example with sanctions, is not for me to comment on, but the EU will discuss what an appropriate response will be.”

“Mr Borrell asked if he could meet Navalny but was told to make a direct request to the courts. Even so, a senior member of the Borrell delegation met with Navalny’s lawyers. There is nothing new in what the Russians said – it is just part of the usual Russian repertoire.”

However, Latvian member Sandra Kalniete, deputy chairwoman of the EPP group in charge of foreign affairs, heavily criticised Borrell, saying, “Holding a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov while the leading opposition politician is again on politically-motivated trials, does not help his case and is a slap in the face for all those who defend democracy.”

“A trip like this cannot be judged a success or failure based on just what happens in one part of that trip. The main aim was to deliver some firm clear messages from the EU about Navalny and Russia’s role in Europe and this was done” European Commission spokesman

“The High Representative’s visit to Moscow would only make sense if he visited Navalny and held extensive talks with those who stand for democracy. The reality is that Borrell did not even try to meet Navalny. And he did not even try to mention Crimea.”

“We expected him to defend European values and not become a tool of Kremlin propaganda. Navalny must be released immediately and unconditionally. All his supporters detained during the peaceful protests must be released as well.”

“Russia is not a democracy; it’s a kleptocratic autocracy. There cannot be business as usual. There cannot be any complacency with a regime which uses justice as a political tool to remain in power at the expense of the interests and the will of the citizens.”

Kalniete went on, “The EU must act now. Its inaction will be considered as complicity. We urge Member States to step up the sanctions and use all available tools to target Russian money in Europe, which fuels Putin’s regime.”

“Our relations with Russia need to be seriously reassessed. We need to focus them on supporting those who defend democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and human rights. Our cooperation with Russia in international fora and on projects such as Nord Stream 2 has to be reviewed and the completion of the latter must stop immediately.”

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