European Union External Action

RBC - Every new crisis has only strengthened the EU

30/04/2020 - 14:17

30/04/2020 - In an interview with RBC, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell responded to criticism of the European approach to the fight against coronavirus and assessed the possibility of restoring relations with Russia.


"At the beginning, EU actions lacked coherence."

- The European Union's response to the coronavirus pandemic seemed fragmented and often targeted by criticism. The Southern bloc countries blamed the EU for its lack of support. Serbian authorities were grateful for the help of China and its leader Xi Jinping, and European solidarity was called a fiction. How would you respond to such criticism?

- Putting the blame for all problems on the European Union is a common tactic, to which EU member states resorted to sometimes as well. It is true that at the beginning of the pandemic, EU actions lacked coherence. Nevertheless, we are now acting in a coordinated manner and successfully fighting the virus and its effects both within our borders and with our neighbours. Honestly, I was surprised to hear about the posters in the streets of Belgrade commending for helping China and Xi Jinping, now Serbia's best friend. Of course, any help should be noticed and gratitude should be expressed. At the same time, it should be noted that the EU has always been very helpful to its neighbours in the Balkans, including Serbia, and it continues to do so now. That is why I consider such criticism unfounded. The European Union remains the main donor for our neighbours in Europe, as well as for African countries.

- So you are not afraid that this situation will affect the reputation of the European Union in the international arena?

- The spread of coronavirus is accompanied by an abundance of disinformation. There is a battle of narratives in social media about which political system is the most effective for overcoming a crisis of such magnitude. The European Union and its actions are being criticized, often with fake news. But I believe that the EU doesn’t deserve the criticism that is being voiced against it. Indeed, during the coronavirus outbreak in China, the EU sent 60 tons of medical supplies there. Later, when the virus reached Europe, China began to help us – with the same amounts as it had previously received from us. The only difference is what coverage was given to Chinese aid and what coverage was given to the support Europe provided. It's up to countries to decide how much publicity to give to their actions.

I believe that after the pandemic, Europe will only get stronger. The European Union was forged in crises. Every time the European project faces a new serious test, there are talks that it is over, that it will fall apart. But at the end, every new crisis has only strengthened the European Union. I hope it will be the case this time as well.

- Europe accounts for about 40% of all infections and over 60% of deaths. How do you explain the high infection and death rates in many EU countries? Was it possible to mitigate the damage?

- No country was prepared for a pandemic and did not have the necessary resources. Europeans behave very responsibly in the face of a pandemic and in the vast majority of cases follow the instructions of authorities and specialists. I am sure that Europe will show the world that our democratic societies are capable of overcoming large-scale challenges. The high mortality rate is due to the fact that Europe has a high life expectancy and many older people, especially in the southern countries - Spain and Italy. Madrid, for example, has the highest concentration of older people in Europe. And as we know, they are hit most seriously by the coronavirus.

- The IMF forecasts that the Union's GDP will fall by 7% this year. Can the current crisis be considered as the most serious test in the history of the European Union?

- Last century, Europe suffered more serious shocks, in particular, two world wars. But from the economic point of view, the current crisis is perhaps indeed the largest in the history of the European project, even bigger than the 2009 eurozone crisis. At the same time, the pandemic is not only a European problem, but it is a global challenge. Recently, for example, the UN cited statistics showing that the economic recession in Latin America will be the largest since 1914. The gravity of the impact of COVID-19 on Africa is still unclear. In the USA, huge numbers of people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Lower oil prices are creating difficulties for exporting countries. In other words, the pandemic has affected all countries, but each in a different way. So, this is a common challenge that needs to be addressed together - with the involvement of the United States, China, and, certainly, Russia, and the EU.

- The pandemic has exacerbated the conflict between China and the United States, and it is causing tangible economic damage to the European Union. How will all this affect the EU's global ambitions and your declared desire to strengthen its role on the world stage?

- We are in a new geopolitical environment. As I have already said, to overcome this crisis we need close cooperation at least between the US, China and the EU. But unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the previous disagreements between China and the US. Now some say that there is no leader in world politics and several countries are claiming this role. This situation creates new opportunities for the EU, given its reputation as a player able to offer constructive solutions to problems, to act on different fronts and in the most difficult situations. The ability to act as a soft power will become even more important in the future. All countries use and develop soft power. China and Russia are no exception, and are using the pandemic to enhance their diplomatic prestige.

- Earlier you said that the EU needs to pay more attention to building its capacity as a hard power.

- There are many situations where you can do without hard power. Take the pandemic. Who will be in a more advantageous situation - a country waving a big stick or a country that can offer a million of medical masks to other countries?


"The European Union is always ready to take a new look at relations with Russia."

- Earlier this year you met with Sergey Lavrov on the margins of the Munich Security Conference. Did you manage to find an understanding on how to develop the EU-Russia dialogue?

- We are both aware that the EU and Russia have common challenges and areas in which cooperation should be developed. The fight against coronavirus is one of such areas. The EU has invited Russia to join the international alliance that finances research on emerging infectious diseases (Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness). Russia can contribute to developing research and preventing epidemiological crises. At the same time, the EU's position has always been open and clear: political relations can reach a qualitatively new level only after Russia makes necessary steps. During meetings with my Russian counterparts, I always remind them of the EU's concerns over a number of issues, primarily the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the status of the Crimea.

- What concrete steps is the European Union ready to take to restore the dialogue with Moscow? For example, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the EU is blocking consultations under the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Are you ready to unfreeze this cooperation?

- The European Union is always ready to look at relations with Russia with a new perspective, but only if and when there are objective conditions, about which the EU spoke at length and of which Russia is also fully aware. When this happens, we will be ready to engage positively with Russia, bearing in mind the important issues that need to be resolved. After all, these issues are of great importance to the EU. The coronavirus offers us opportunities for practical cooperation. One example is our mutual efforts to assist with repatriation of EU and Russian citizens. As I mentioned earlier, research into the virus is another area where there is big potential for collaboration. Unfortunately, Russian research organisations chose not to participate in the EU global call for expressions of interest on coronavirus research. So, to say that the EU is not engaging is not correct. We are engaging with Russia on issues of common interest – the Arctic, counter-terrorism, or climate change. Often it is Russia that declines offers of cooperation.

- The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the concept of relations with Russia adopted in 2016, which is based on five principles. Do you consider this strategy relevant?

- The five principles remain relevant, because the problematic issues that existed at the time of the adoption of this concept have not gone away. Moreover, the current strategy give us a room for maneuver. For example, we can develop the dialogue based on the fourth and fifth principles. They cover possibilities to cooperate with Russia in the spheres, where the sides have mutual interests, and contacts at the level of civil societies.

- The crisis has led to an even greater drop in energy prices. Does it somehow reduce the EU's concern about dependence on Russian energy and Moscow's ability to use its influence in this area?

- Concerns in the EU about dependence on Russian energy supplies have been focused on risks of undue political influence on markets and on EU Member States. That said, the great strides have been taken over the last few years to reduce our concerns and ensure security of supply. Therefore, we expect that Russia will remain an important energy supplier for the EU in the coming decades. It is premature to forecast how the fall of oil price will impact Russia. Yet the situation is also a wake-up call to all those reliant on fossil fuel businesses to take economic and energy transition measures seriously.

- This spring you planned to visit Ukraine and Russia, but the visit was postponed. Are you still determined to make these trips?

- I really wanted to visit Ukraine in March. During this first visit, I planned to visit, among other things, the conflict zone in Donbass. A visit to Ukraine remains one of my top priorities as soon as the situation normalizes. After that, I still plan to come to Russia, which is not only our biggest neighbour, but also an important geopolitical player and permanent member of the UN Security Council. We are open to dialogue, and this interview — the first interview by the High Representative to Russian media — proofs it.

- On April 30, the foreign ministers of the "Normandy format" will hold a video conference dedicated to the settlement of the situation in Ukraine. How do you assess the prospects of the peace process?

- Because of the coronavirus, it may seem that the Ukrainian problem has moved to the background, but in reality, this topic is still very important. The summit of the "Normandy format" in Paris last December created a new dynamic, and everything should be done to use this window of opportunity to the maximum. Agreed measures, including those relating to crossing points along the line of contact, release of detainees, should be implemented. Some of them have already been implemented, and I hope that progress continuous. The exchanges of detainees in itself will not improve the lives of people in the zone of conflict, but a long-term ceasefire can. For its part, the EU remains committed to supporting Ukraine and is ready to provide additional funding to the OSCE mission.


Stand-along insert

EU and assistance to Belarus

Answering to the question about the EU’s readiness to support Belarus in the event of deterioration of the situation with the COVID-19 crisis, Josep Borrell said that he discussed the issue during the conversation with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. “Belarus has requested assistance for its healthcare system and to address the economic impact of this situation. The EU has allocated more than EUR60 million aid to Belarus to overcome the consequences of the pandemic," he said. According to the Head of European Diplomacy service, EUR963 million has been allocated for the six countries of the Eastern Partnership for health needs and social and economic assistance. “Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have also offered Macro Financial Assistance,” he said.

- A year has passed since Vladimir Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine. How do you assess his activity and whether it contributes to the normalization of the situation in the east of the country?

- Zelenskyy managed to create a positive atmosphere and demonstrate the spirit of peace that many Ukrainians share. Some reforms face opposition inside the country, but Zelensky remains committed to his goals. This deserves respect and support from the European Union. Ukraine remains one of our most important neighbours, and we are concerned about the difficult situation on Ukraine's border with Russia.