EU Ambassadors Annual Conference 2022: Opening speech by High Representative Josep Borrell
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Welcome, welcome to all of you. I see some of you that I know personally, others I still do not know. But in any case, [I am] very happy to be here and to be able to discuss in person. Nothing substitutes the real interaction - the personal interactions - and I think that it is important that we see each other, and we discuss how do we work.
You will have an entire week and you will be hearing from many people – from our President [of the European] Commission [Ursula von der Leyen], [President of the European] Council [Charles Michel], Commissioners, think tankers, journalists. You will discuss about how the European Union should position [itself] in this competitive and fractured world.
I am the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy. I am in charge of building a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the [European] External Action Service – and in particular you - are supposed to support me on doing that.
And in doing that, we have to deal with the new ‘frontiers of diplomacy’ - which is the title of this meeting. The new frontiers of diplomacy – it is a big range of issues.
You will talk about how to revitalise multilateralism at this time of power politics. You will talk about European security, in light of the war in Ukraine, but not only – there are other security crises, which are looming. We will talk about [the] energy and climate crisis and what the European Union should do. Both things go together. We are facing one of the biggest energy crises since the first oil shock in the seventies. At that time, I was a student at the French Institute of Petroleum in Paris. It was 1972, and I was told that there was only oil for 20 years. Well, we are in 2022 and we still have a lot of oil, but at a very high price. So, energy and climate – both things together, are going to be a big challenge.
We will talk about disinformation, foreign interference in our political processes, the digital revolution, the Global Gateway, gender and diversity. It is a very nice programme. I am not going to talk about all of them, and I am not going to follow all these different issues. It would be impossible, and I am not a specialist on almost any of them.
I want to structure my address today along two things. First, the ‘what’ questions. Second, the ‘how’ questions.
The ‘what’ questions [are]: What is happening? What is coming? What should we do?
And the ‘how’ questions [are]: How do we operate? How do we work? How do you work? How can we get more and better results?
This is not a moment when we are going to send flowers to all of you saying that you are beautiful, you work very well and we are very happy, we are one big family, etc. This is a moment to talk among ourselves about what we do [not do] well enough, why I am not always happy with the way my [EU] Delegations work, and to send clear messages about how I would like you to improve.
First, about the ‘what’. The world we are facing – as I said, I am not a specialist on almost any of the issues, but I have a broad political understanding. How are we facing the world? What world is this?
Well, it is a world of radical uncertainty. The speed and scope of change is exceptional. We should not try to deny it. We should not try to resist it. It would be a futile effort. We have to accept it and to adapt [to] it, prioritising flexibility and resilience.
But uncertainty is the rule. Events that one could imagine that they will never happen, they are happening one after the other.
At this pace, the black swan will be the majority. It will not be white swans – all of them will be black – because one after the other, things have happened that had a very low probability of happening, nevertheless they happened, and they had a strong impact and certainly they happened.
Let me try to summarise what is happening to us. Maybe I am wrong, but I want to discuss with you about it. I think that we Europeans are facing a situation in which we suffer the consequences of a process that has been lasting for years in which we have decoupled the sources of our prosperity from the sources of our security. This is a sentence to provide the headline, and I am taking that from Olivier Schmitt, who has been developing this thesis – I think - quite well.
Our prosperity has been based on cheap energy coming from Russia. Russian gas – cheap and supposedly affordable, secure, and stable. It has been proved not [to be] the case. And the access to the big China market, for exports and imports, for technological transfers, for investments, for having cheap goods. I think that the Chinese workers with their low salaries have done much better and much more to contain inflation than all the Central Banks together.
So, our prosperity was based on China and Russia – energy and market. Clearly, today, we have to find new ways for energy from inside the European Union, as much as we can, because we should not change one dependency for another. The best energy is the one that you produce at home. That will produce a strong restructuring of our economy – that is for sure. People are not aware of that but the fact that Russia and China are no longer the ones that [they] were for our economic development will require a strong restructuring of our economy.
The access to China is becoming more and more difficult. The adjustment will be tough, and this will create political problems.
On the other hand, we delegated our security to the United States. While the cooperation with the Biden Administration is excellent, and the transatlantic relationship has never been as good as it is today – [including] our cooperation with the United States and my friend Tony [Anthony] Blinken [US Secretary of State]: we are in a fantastic relationship and cooperating a lot; who knows what will happen two years from now, or even in November? What would have happened if, instead of [Joe] Biden, it would have been [Donald] Trump or someone like him in the White House? What would have been the answer of the United States to the war in Ukraine? What would have been our answer in a different situation?
These are some questions that we have to ask ourselves. And the answer for me is clear: we need to shoulder more responsibilities ourselves. We have to take a bigger part of our responsibility in securing security.
You - the United States - take care of our security. You - China and Russia – provided the basis of our prosperity. This is a world that is no longer there.
Inside our countries, there is a radical shift, and the radical right is increasing in our democracies, democratically – it is the choice of the people, it is not an imposition from any power. It is the people who go and vote here and there. I am not going to blame anyone, but you have in mind what I am talking about. The radical right is increasing their grasp in European politics.
So, we have a difficult cocktail – internal and external – and the old recipes do not work anymore. We have mounting security challenges and our internal cohesion is under threat.
So, let us look at the past few months in a little bit more detail.
Some things have happened in the past that we knew they could happen, but some of them have been a surprise.
First, how not? Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has persisted. We did not foresee how effectively Ukraine would resist. First, we did not believe that the war was coming. I have to recognise that here, in Brussels, the Americans were telling us “They will attack, they will attack”, and we were quite reluctant to believe it. And I remember very well when [US Secretary of State] Tony Blinken phoned me and told me “well, it is going to happen this weekend”. And certainly, two days later, at five o’clock in the morning, they started bombing Kyiv. We did not believe that this was going to happen, and we did not foresee that Ukraine was ready to resist as fiercely and as successfully as they are doing. Certainly, thanks to our military support. Without it, it would have been impossible, but they put some things from their part.
We had not foreseen either the capacity of Putin to escalate [with regards to] the level of mass mobilisation and open nuclear threats. I suppose that all of you have been reading and re-reading the latest speech of Putin when he declared the annexation. That is a must. Every European citizen must read this speech – and you, in particular. You have to explain to the world what does it mean, what does this approach against the West mean, and which are the real reasons of this war.
Second, the deep US-China competition. That was not a surprise. But the escalation of tension in Taiwan – yes, it was not in the agenda. It was triggered by an individual travel of a personality that brought the Taiwan Strait at the edge of – I would not say a war, but – a lot of war games.
The third issue was the world food and energy crises. It was predictable, it was predicted but not with the severity it has taken. And I am afraid that we are only at the beginning, that the food crisis will only make things worse in many parts of the world where you are deployed. I am coming from [a visit in] Somalia and, certainly, the Horn of Africa is a good example of how the climate change plus the war – both things together – are creating a humanitarian crisis of “dantesque” proportions that here, in Europe, we are not aware of.
This is a perfect storm. First, the prices increasing. Second, the reaction of the Central Banks raising interest rates in the United States. Everybody has to follow, because otherwise their currency will be devaluated. Everybody is running to raise interest rates. This will bring us to a world recession. The world following the Fed [the Federal Reserve], the world implementing the same monetary policy - because there is no other way, otherwise the capital will flow - reminds me of what was happening in Europe before the euro when everybody had to follow the monetary policy dictated by Germany. Because if you did not do the same thing, the capital was flowing, and you had to do it even if it was not the right policy for your internal reasons. What was happening among us before the euro is happening today on the world stage.
Then, the security situation. Do not limit it to Ukraine. We have a lot of security problems in our neighbourhood, and I want to address our colleagues who are in the Sahel. It was not a surprise either what is happening in the Sahel. But certainly, the degree to which Russia is becoming a major factor in African theatres – yes, it is a surprise. We could not – we should [have] -, but we did not imagine how quickly, from the Central African Republic, now to Mali, and I do not know what is happening in Burkina Faso.
So, do not look only at the Ukrainian crisis.
Well, this is what is happening. Let us have a look now at the mega trends that will shape our world: Ukraine, but not only Ukraine. I want to insist on this.
Last year, everybody was talking about Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the big issue, remember in August [and] in September . Where is Afghanistan now? In Afghanistan, certainly, but it is no longer on the front pages of the newspapers. It looks like Afghanistan does not exist. The same problems exist – they are the same ones - but nobody talks about it. So, take care with the issues that appears – a crisis and then a following crisis erases the previous one, it looks like it is being solved but it is not solved. [It] is still there. There are many crises around the world, which are the trends that move this world.
First, a messy multipolarity. There is the US-China competition. This is the most important “structuring force”. The world is being structured around this competition - like it or not. The two big powers – big, big, big, very big – are competing and this competition will restructure the world. And this will coexist with a broader “democracies vs. authoritarians", a big divide. I would not insist a lot on it because on our side, there are a lot of authoritarian regimes. We cannot say “we are the democracies”, and the ones which follow us are also democracies - that is not true. That is not true.
Yes, there is a fight between the democratic systems and the authoritarian systems. But authoritarianism is, unhappily, developing a lot. Not just China, not just Russia. There is an authoritarian trend. Sometimes, they are still wearing the democracy suit, but they are no longer democracies. There are some who are not democracies at all – they do not even take the pity to look like democracies.
So, this competition is a structuring force. The fight between democracies and authoritarians is there. But it is much more than that.
The world is not purely bipolar. We have multiple players and poles, each one looking for their interest and values. Look at Turkey, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia. They are middle powers. They are swing states – they vote on one side or the other according to their interests, not only their theoretical values. But these people – I mention them again: Turkey, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia – are players and poles. This creates this messy multipolarity. These people – and there are a lot of people inside – are there, and not always following us. Look at Mexico’s President [Andrés Manuel López Obrador]’s recent speech. Who is our Mexico delegate? Is he here? You heard what the Mexican President said about us recently.
The second characteristic is a competitive world where everything is being weaponised. Everything is a weapon: energy, investments, information, migration flows, data, etc. There is a global fight about access to some strategic domains: cyber, maritime, or outer space.
The third characteristic of this world is the rising nationalism, revisionism plus identity politics. Putin does not want to re-store communism. He knows that nobody wants communism again. Putin is using a resource, which is an everyday resource, very powerful and they never disappear. And this is radical nationalism and imperialism.
And in the middle of that, we have the Global South. These people do not want to be forced to take sides in this geopolitical competition. More [importantly], they feel that the global system does not deliver, and they are not receiving their part. They are not receiving enough recognition. They do not have the role they should have according to their population and their economic weight. And when facing these multiple crises – these multipolar crises - financial, food and energy crises – it is clear that they are not there following us because they blame us, rightly or not.
Let us see what will happen at [COP27 in] Sharm-el-Sheikh. But look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – who is our delegate in the DRC? You were there, you listened to what happened in the last meeting. The DRC said that they are not going to sacrifice their economic development to the climate fight.
We see that the war between states is coming back – like in the films, like in the Second World War (tanks, infantry). But, apart from that, there [are] the hybrid wars, there is the disinformation war that continues. I want to stress the importance of the war on information and disinformation – I will talk about it later.
This is what is coming, this is what we have to face. Let me go back to “how”.
I think that we have to think more politically. I think that we need to be more proactive, more reactive. We have to make a link between all these problems. We still operate in silos - I can tell you. I am supposed to be the one who bridges the [European] Commission and the Council and, inside the Commission, my colleagues from different policy [fields]. But we continue working in silos, and each policy continues having its own logic and its own rhythm – be it climate, be it trade, be [it] whatever.
Commission, College, the communitarisation of policies through the Commission, the nationalisation of policies through the Council. It continues being a difficult task. Certainly, the national policies and the Community policies, we want to bridge them – with Team Europe and the Global Gateway – but we [have] still a lot to do to be one power, someone that acts on behalf of the Union as a whole.
We think too much internally and then we try to export our model, but we do not think enough about how the others will perceive this exportation of models. Yes, we have the “Brussels effect” and we continue setting standards, but I believe that, more and more, the rest of the world is not ready to follow our exportation of model. “This is one model, it is the best one, so you have to follow it”. For cultural, historical and economic reasons, this is no longer accepted.
We have to listen more. We have to be much more on “listening mode” to the other side – the other side is the rest of the world. We need to have more empathy. We tend to overestimate the rational arguments. “We are the land of reason”. We think that we know better what is in other people’s interests. We underestimate the role of emotions and the persisting appeal of identity politics.
Remember this sentence: “it is the identity, stupid”. It is no longer the economy, it is the identity. More and more, some identities are raising and willing to be recognised and accepted and not to be fused inside the “West” approach.
I think that we have to be faster and to take risks. I need you to report fast, in real time on what is happening in your countries. I want to be informed by you, not by the press. Sometimes, I knew more of what was happening somewhere by reading the newspapers than reading your reports. Your reports come sometimes too late. Sometimes, I read something happening somewhere and I ask “what [does our Delegation [say]. For the time being, nothing. “For the time being, nothing” is not affordable. You have to be on 24-hours reaction capacity. Immediately - something happens, you inform. I do not want to continue reading in the newspapers about things that happened somewhere with our Delegation having said nothing.
I do not want to “blame and shame”, but this is something that I have to tell you. I want you to be more reactive, 24 hours a day. We are living in a crisis, you have to be in the crisis mode. Explain what is happening - quickly, immediately. Even if you do not have the full information on the first hours, show that you are there. I should be the best-informed guy in the world. Having all of you around the world, I should be the best informed person in the world – at least as much as any Foreign Affairs Minister. I am “Foreign Affairs Minister of Europe”. Behave as you would behave if you were an Embassy: send a telegram, a cable, a mail - quickly. Quickly, please, react.
Take more initiative. Be ready to be bold. Whatever we do, there are taboo-breaking decisions. We break taboos on the Ukrainian war, using the European Peace Facility to buy arms – something that at the beginning [was] “oh, that is impossible, we have never done it”. “We have never done it” is not a recipe. Maybe we have to start doing things that we have never done in the past. When we hesitate, we regret it.
I think that, for example, [of] the discussion on the Ukrainian Training mission [EU Training Mission in Ukraine]. We had been discussing about the Ukrainian Training Mission before the war for months. “Do we have to send a training mission to Ukraine?”, “No, come on, Ukraine, training mission, military in Ukraine...”. And then, boom, the war comes and people said: “we should have done it.” Yes, we should have done it. And now we are doing it quickly – well, quickly for European standards. Quickly for European standards means a couple of months. But unhappily, the war is still there, our training mission will have had the possibility of acting.
We have to define better our goals and prepare for that. You know, here, we work a lot on seven-years scenarios, than one-year plan, and announcing big figures that people sometimes [do not] believe anymore. When we announce big figures, take into consideration which is the time scope of these figures. It does not mean anything one figure if you do not put a time dimension. “We are going to support with X money”. And you plan to spend it in how many years? Tomorrow or in the next seven years? Or when you say, “in the past, we have been supporting this country with this amount of money”. This amount of money - which is the time dimension? It has been spent in one year or in 10 years? Because it is completely different. We have the habit of just mentioning figures, avoiding the time dimension, and it does not mean anything.
Please, be prepared for better explanation of what we do with a time schedule. We should look for a balance between what we announce and what we implement, because sometimes some announcements discredit us if they are not being followed by concrete actions.
In general terms, I would say that we need a better balance between crisis-management and long-term [planning]. We live in crisis management: “what’s happening today?”, “what happened yesterday?”, “what is happening tomorrow?” Crisis, crisis, crisis. Foreign policy is not just managing crises one after the other. We have to try to think in the medium and long-term. With the pandemic, with the climate, with the energy crisis, we have to think a little bit about what is longer than what is going to happen tomorrow and what [was happening] yesterday.
We have to be a little bit out of the crisis mode. This will require thinking more about how technology is reshaping the world and the nexus between energy, climate and raw materials.
The other day, at the Prague [European] Council, President [of France, Emmanuel] Macron said that very clearly: we cannot substitute one dependency by another. We are happy that we are importing a lot of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from the United States – at a high price, by the way - and substituting Russian gas by American and Norwegian gas, or Azerbaijani gas – well, from Azerbaijan it’s a small quantity. But what would happen tomorrow if the United States, with a new President, decided not to be so friendly with the Europeans? Why not? You can imagine the situation in which our critical dependency from LNG coming from the United States could also be in crisis. Or that, tomorrow we do not have the cobalt, we do not have the rare materials that [come from] the DRC, South America, Afghanistan – they are [as] critical for us as oil and gas.
We do not have a clear understanding that we are creating new dependencies in this link between energy, climate [and] technology. This is something that we have to be very clear on.
The last word about communication. Communication is our battlefield: we fight in communication. We do not fight with arms in [this] battlefield – thank, God – but we have to fight on communication. I spend a lot of time doing communication. Talking [during] the doorstep, the post-meeting step, my blog. My blog is not “my” blog. It is not my intellectual amusement, it’s my “consigna” [guidance]. And I am still surprised that, in some delegations, it seems that they do not take enough consideration of our communication, and they do not tweet and re-tweet the messages that we are delivering from the centre. You have to be a network that is repeating, transmitting, insisting.
This is a battle that we are not winning because we are not fighting enough. We do not understand that it is a fight. Apart from conquering a space, you have to conquer the minds. The Russians and the Chinese are very good in that. They are industrialising, they have [troll] farms systematically repeating, reaching everybody in the world - once and again, once and again. We do not have a Russia Today or a Sputnik, not even Radio Liberty. But I think that all of you have to do much more on communication. We provide you with materials and I have the feeling that you do not transmit the message strongly enough.
I need my delegations to step up on social media, on TV, in debates. Retweet our messages, our [European] External Action Service materials. Certainly, my blog, which is the everyday “consigna”. Tailor it to the local circumstances, use local languages. The first problem is that we speak English but a lot of people around the world do not speak English and do not understand if we address them in English. Do it in local languages. We still have a “reflex” of European culture: we speak our languages, and we expect the rest of the world to understand us. Many, many people around the world do not understand, not even Spanish.
I need you to be much more engaged in this battle of narratives. It is not something secondary. It is not just winning the wars by sending tanks, missiles, and troops. It is a big battle: who is going to win the spirits and the souls of people?
When we say that China is our rival, systemic rival, systemic rival means that our systems are in rivalry. And the Chinese are trying to explain to the world that their system is much better. Because, well, maybe you are not going to choose your head of government, but you will have food, and heat, and social services, you will improve your living conditions. Many people in the world, yes, they go and vote and choose their government, but their material conditions are not being improved. And in the end, people want to live a better life.
We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. We, Europeans, we have this extraordinary chance. We live in the world in this part of the world where political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion are the best, the best combination of all of that. But the rest of the world is not like this. Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion. Both things have to go together. Otherwise, our model will perish, will not be able to survive in this world.
We are too much Kantians and not enough Hobbesians, as the philosopher says. Let’s try to understand the world the way it is and bring the voice of Europe. And bring to me, to my service, to the External Action Service Headquarters what you feel, what you understand, what you see. Inform us. You are my eyes, my ears around the world.
I count on you, but the task is not easy, and certainly we can do it much better.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-230995