Borrell defends controversial Russia trip, threatens sanctions – POLITICO

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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Tuesday defended his much-criticized trip to Moscow as “important” and said he would propose sanctions in response to Russia’s refusal to engage on human rights.

Speaking in the European Parliament, Borrell said he was under “no illusion” about his visit to Russia last Friday and was aware that it “presented obvious risks,” which he was willing to take.

“I wanted to test whether the Russian authorities are interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue. The answer has been clear: No, they are not,” Borrell said.

Borrell has faced sharp criticism from MEPs and European diplomats for having stood by silently as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner” during a joint press conference in Moscow on Friday. Over 70 MEPs on Monday said the foreign policy chief must resign — or be sacked — over what they called a “humiliating” performance by Borrell, whose visit to the Russian capital was overshadowed by the Kremlin expelling three European diplomats for allegedly attending demonstrations in support of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

“I think it was important to show our concerns, directly, in person, at the right moment and in the right place,” the former Spanish foreign minister told Parliament. “Looking at each other in the eyes, especially on issues that are conflictual … is a way of showing that foreign policy cannot be reduced to issuing a written statement from a safe distance.”

Borrell also said he would push for additional EU sanctions against Moscow. “I will put forward concrete proposals,” he said, adding that EU foreign ministers would discuss these proposals at a meeting on February 22. “It will be for the member states to decide the next steps. But yes, this could include sanctions,” he said. “Containment efforts” by the EU should also include “robust action” against disinformation and cyberattacks, he added.

“I’m very concerned over the perspective of the Russian authorities’ geostrategic choices and the implications of their actions,” he said. “We are at a crossroads in our relations with Russia. And the choices that we will make will determine the international power dynamics of this century.”

During the debate that followed Borrell’s address, lawmakers from across the spectrum criticized his trip and his performance in Moscow.

“Was it not to be expected that Lavrov would produce an attack on the EU?” asked Michael Gahler, a German MEP from the center-right European People’s Party. “It would have been appropriate to address the long list of Russian misbehavior in response and to rebuff Lavrov’s [criticism].”

Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian MEP and leader of the Renew Europe group, said “it didn’t make sense to carry out a visit given the conditions” and added that “the fallout from it sadly had a negative impact on the credibility of the EU in the diplomatic sector.”

Dutch Socialist MEP Kati Piri said that Moscow had “abused” Borrell’s visit “to humiliate and offend the European Union,” but sought to deflect blame away from Borrell — who is from the same political family — toward EU countries, who she said had failed to agree on a tougher line against Russia and sent ambiguous signals by supporting projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer made a similar point when he described the visit as “a failure” but remarked that “it is also true that you had been dealt a very bad hand because of the lack of unity in the Council.”

Borrell rejected criticism that it was wrong to go to Moscow and argued that EU countries had sent 19 official delegations “at ministerial level or above” to Russia in the past two years. “So can everyone go apart from the high representative?” he asked.

Addressing his critics, Borrell also said that Russian authorities “seek to divide us,” and added: “This seemed to be a clear objective during my visit. We should not fall into these traps.”

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