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El Pais - Lukashenko is like Maduro. We do not recognize him but we must deal with him


HR/VP Josep Borrell on the situation in Belarus, EU-Russia relations, the EU recovery fund, European strategic autonomy and other foreign affairs issues.


The High Representative claims the EU does not want another Ukraine and liaises with Russia to promote the democratization of Belarus.

“Yes, mister Lavrov? This is mister Borrell”. The interview, held on Thursday during a break of the Quo vadis Europa summer course run by the International University Menéndez Pelayo for the last 20 years, on the Magdalena’s Palace calm paradise in Santander, ends as planned when the Russian foreign affairs minister calls Borrell to talk about Belarus. Josep Borrell (La Pobla de Segur, 73 years old), High Representative for European Foreign Affairs, weather-beaten in thousands of battles, will talk to M. Lavrov at the Palace’s hallway and try to convince him that this time it’s not like the Ukraine’s fiasco: the EU doesn’t want a geostrategic fight with Russia, but only promote the democracy and help Belarusians in their search for freedom. The EU's Foreign Affairs High Representative has spent the entire summer putting down fires. And there are still many left.

El Pais: How far will the EU go to get Alexandr Lukashenko out of power in a peaceful way?

Borrell: Belarus’ case is not comparable to Ukraine’s one. In Ukraine, there was a tension between the European vocation and that of association with Russia, with protesters carrying European flags. It had a geopolitical dimension. Belarusians now are not arguing between mom or dad. They simply demand a regime of freedom and civil rights. There are no European flags at the demonstrations. And the EU has no intention of turning Belarus into a second Ukraine. We have to promote political reform, but avoid appearing as a distorting factor. Which is how we could be perceived on the Russian side. That tension between Europe and Russia ended in gunfire, with violence and with a disintegration of the Ukrainian territory that still lasts. Today's problem for Belarusians is not choosing between Russia and Europe, it is achieving freedom and democracy, which are basic values ​​of the European Union and which we will therefore support.

El Pais: Isn't it in the EU's interest that Belarus doesn't fall into the hands of Vladimir Putin?

Borrell: We are especially interested in that Belarusians can live in a regime of political freedoms, and have good relations with our entire neighbourhood. A very complicated neighbourhood, as this summer has shown. From the Sahel to the Middle East, through Libya, Turkey, Iran and now Belarus, our entire neighbourhood is troubled. And the EU has no magic wands. We have financial resources, we have mobilized 50 million euros to help Belarusian society, we have political influence, but Belarus must not be a second Ukraine.

El Pais: There are no European flags, but there is a certain desire for westernization, for democratization in Belarus. May it happen, as in Ukraine, that this desire for openness ends the other way around, in Putin's greater control of that area?

Borrell: That must be avoided too. That is why we are in contact with Russia. The President of the European Council has spoken to President Putin and I talked to Minister Lavrov to avoid any misunderstandings and prevent the Russian side to make decisions that could eventually destabilize the situation. Back in 2010, we stated that those elections were invalid, and Lukashenko responded with the same violence to the protesters. In 2006, we already imposed sanctions against Lukashenko himself and 230 people responsible. After that, he showed some openness by releasing a few political prisoners, we wanted to believe it was a good sign and we lifted the sanctions. It’s clear that now we will have to bring them back.

El Pais: For the EU, Lukashenko has to fall?

Borrell: We do not recognize him as a legitimate president. Nor do we recognize Nicolás Maduro. From this point of view, Maduro and Lukashenko are in exactly the same situation. We do not acknowledge that they have been legitimately chosen. However, whether we like it or not, they control the government and we have to continue dealing with them, despite not recognizing their democratic legitimacy. The goal for Belarusians is to have the opportunity to express themselves freely. That is what the European Council decided.

El Pais: What relationship should Europe have with Russia, which wants to occupy more and more space?

Borrell: The relationship with Russia is as complex as the relationship with China. It is a polyhedron that has many sides. With Russia, on the one hand, we sanction it but on the other, we have an energy dependence that for some countries is very strong. It looks differently as to Russia when you're Lithuanian or Portuguese. Russia is an international actor, desiring to return to playing a powerful role, it is not the only one that feels the old imperial temptation. But whether we like it or not, there are many problems that we have to deal with Russia to try to solve them, from the Arctic to Syria.

El Pais: Are you worried about the possible poisoning of the opposition leader Alexéi Navalni?

Borrell: Of course we are worried, and it is keeping us busy too. A plane took him to a German hospital. These things remind us of events that already worried us earlier. However, everything is yet to be verified.

El Pais: Why is it so hard to consolidate democracy in Russia?

Borrell: Not only in Russia. Many countries in the world do not have a consolidated democracy. And in others there’s a worrying fatigue of democracy. We, Europeans, are not mindful of how incredibly lucky we are to be living in the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social solidarity in the world.

El Pais: Does Putin respect the EU?

Borrell: Are you asking me about Putin or Trump? When Putin acts as he does, first in Syria and then in Libya, and before that in Ukraine, he does so using his military potential and his willingness to act as a regional hegemonic power. It would be easier for him if the European Union did not exist. Then it would only have to deal with countries one by one, and some would have little to say. It is precisely in order to face the risks and threats at our borders that the European Union has more and more reason to exist.

El Pais: Does France want to get closer to Russia?

Borrell: France has a more open position with Russia, true. But Germany, too, is perfectly aware that Russia is a market and an energy supplier. The situation in Poland and its border countries, formerly ruled by the Soviet Union, in particular the Baltics, is different. The problem we have in Europe when it comes to shaping a common foreign policy is that we do not share the same vision of what our threats are. Because we do not share the same history. And that is why our vision of the world is different. I give an example: Polish people believe that they owe their freedom to the United States and to the Pope. And they are right. But as a Spaniard, I think that I have suffered the Franco dictatorship to a great extent because of the support of the United States and the Vatican. Foreign policy is the projection to the rest of the world of your historical identity.

El Pais: Does the recovery fund save the EU?

Borrell: The virus has had a great catalytic effect on the European integration. Without it we would keep saying that we can’t access jointly the financial markets, that we can’t proceed with dent-financed transfers. Once again it’s being proved that the EU is built on crises. Or as the saying, “by force they hang”.

El Pais: Could the pandemic have saved the EU?

Borrell: It has given the EU a new image. At the beginning of the pandemic, Europe had a very bad image. We saw Italians burning European flags. And an “every man for himself”, with the Germans who did not want to sell their stocks of medical supplies to Italy and Russian and Chinese planes landing in Milan with the flags displayed saying here we are, we are the good guys. At first, the image was not bright. But later there was a EU joint response, difficult to develop, which broke the mould. We have to feel satisfied. Now Europeans see that Europe is mobilized, organizing solidarity in a deeper way

El Pais: Is Spain ready to spend that money properly?

Borrell: It’s not going to be easy to spend those thousands of millions of euros. Because transfers come with conditions. But we will not see men in black in the troika’s style, because there will be no macro-economic adjustments, but there will be logical conditionality so that these resources are used for the aimed purposes, i.e, fighting climate change, the ecological transition, and the economy’s digitalization. Neither men in black nor blank checks. It is understandable that there are questions about the implementation of this ambitious plan.

El Pais: Is there concern with the political situation in Spain, in particular with an unprecedented coalition in Europe?

Borrell: Not particularly. Look, I was Minister of Public Works when I had to handle a good part of the structural funds. That was easier because the structural funds were basically public works infrastructures that we knew how to build. But we were the ones who best managed the structural funds, and that was a flood of money. Now it is more difficult, because we are not just going to tell a waiter who has lost his job on the Costa del Sol that his future will be green and digital. He will say "okay, but what about my present?" In the short term there is a problem of maintenance of income and capitalization of companies, which is a more micro job. This will require great administrative efficiency from all countries.

El Pais: If Donald Trump wins the elections, we are heading to a world of trade war between two great superpowers, with China. How is the EU positioned there?

Borrell: The EU has to define its own international policy and not be pressured into that Chinese-American confrontation that is going to mark this century. Right now, the US has lost a vote in the Security Council because countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom have not voted on its proposals on the arms embargo on Iran. But it is not only Trump, there is an underlying view in American society on the relationship with China. Surely both the Americans and we have proved somewhat naive and now we want to level the playing field. What happens is that we Europeans do that in a more, let's say, negotiated way.

El Pais: Does Europe have to take care of its own defence without always relying on the United States?

Borrell: It is what is called the European strategic autonomy, which does not mean that we are going to leave NATO. The Euro gives us a certain European strategic autonomy. Without the Euro, Spain would not have been able to leave Iraq - the peseta would not have withstood the pressure. But we still do not have such autonomy in terms of defence, as was demonstrated in Libya. We have to build it in a way that complements what NATO membership gives us. Developing a European security and defence policy is one of my tasks, bearing in mind that not all European countries see it in the same way and not all have the same interest in it.

El Pais: Can the situation in Libya cause a migration crisis like the one in Syria?

Borrell: It is not Libya, it is the migratory pressure coming from the Sahel. On Syria we have agreements with Turkey that are discussed and debatable, but we are not giving money to the Turkish government, we are giving money to the refugees in Turkey - 3.7 million people, the largest number of refugees that any country receives.

El Pais: Is not outsourcing a problem?

Borrell: The alternative is that European societies decide to accept that these 3.7 million migrants come and settle in Europe. Do we want it? Well, if we don't want it, an alternative solution must be found. Doing politics requires defining objectives according to your capabilities. Putting your head in the sky while keeping your feet on the ground does not help much.

El Pais: There is no way to prevent people from dying at sea on the way to Europe?

Borrell: Yes, but this requires regulating immigration and asylum at European level, and for too long the EU has been unable to do this. Immigration cannot be a deregulated phenomenon, instilling fear in societies, because it is easily manipulated. But Europe needs immigration. Some European countries do not want to recognise this, they prefer to grow old rather than blend in, like the Japanese, by the way. Others are more open. But we all need to compensate for our demographic slump with immigration. Oh, and let's call a spade a spade: the war in Syria did not send migrants, it sent refugees, just as the Spanish Civil War sent refugees (exiles) to French beaches, exactly the same.

El Pais: Is there a risk of an armed clash between Turkey and Greece?

Borrell: It is a very tense situation. In the Foreign Affairs Council that we have had this summer, which I have spent with a phone on each ear, the three most used words were: solidarity with Greece and Cyprus; de-escalation, because there are many warships manoeuvring in the same area and the other day there was an accidental collision between a Greek and a Turkish ship that tomorrow could be something else; and negotiation. With Turkey things have gone from bad to worse, we need to rebuild the relationship and that can only be done through negotiation.

El Pais: Will there be sanctions against Turkey?

Borrell: The Council asked me to present a range of possible sanctions. There have already been sanctions against some drilling company executives. If things do not get better, we will have to act, but we are trying to avoid that. My role is not to pour fuel in the fire, but to avoid increasing tensions.

El Pais: You have welcomed the Israel-Arab Emirates agreement but some partners believe it may be a stab to the Palestinian cause.

Borrell: It depends. We have good relations with Israel, with the Emirates, with the Palestinians. Everything has advantages and disadvantages. This agreement has served at least to avoid the announced annexation of the Jordan Valley during the summer, which would have been a point of serious disagreement with Israel. What we have clearly said from the EU is that the peace plan presented by Jared Kushner is not a good basis for negotiations. 

El Pais: You have been in office for nine months. Is it frustrating to have to agree everything unanimously?

Borrell: I came into office convinced that the unanimity rule had to be abandoned and now I am more convinced than ever. But I am aware that to change unanimity... unanimity is necessary, and that does not exist, everyone wants to keep a veto right. It's an exciting position in which you have to have a lot of patience, knowing that it's a marathon. I am grateful to life for the opportunity to finish my political career in such a demanding position.

© El Pais
Non-official translation

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