EU Ambassadors Conference 2023: Opening speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell

Strategic Communications

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Welcome home!

I think it is the sober way of welcoming you because the gravity of the moment does not give much space for flamboyance or rhetoric. 

It is good that you come here to this Ambassador’s Conference to discuss, to see each other, to engage with the staff in Brussels.

We can be proud to be one of the largest diplomatic corps and network in the world, [on which] the European Union institutions rely.

It will [last] one week. It shows that it is not just a formal exercise, but [meant] to go deeper into discussion. 

I will not be with you the whole week and maybe not even on Friday because I have been called to go somewhere else in the world and particularly to the Middle East, and you may understand.

It is clear that we are living in troubled times.

When I presented the Strategic Compass, almost two years ago, I said “Europe is in danger”. It was before the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. It was before the major current crisis in Sahel. It was before the flare-up of the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

And certainly, I think that we will agree that I do not remember a time when I could say that Europe is in danger and facing so great challenges. 

We have seen the explosion of violence and rivalry, together with the climate and ecological crisis which aggravate the security risks with countries in the region, and in some places [it is] becoming unbearable. People cannot live in some places in our neighborhood due to climate change. 

So, the coming months will be for sure – the coming months, not the coming years, will be for sure a moment for defining a global peace and the future of the world, and for the security and the global credibility of the European Union. 

Let me start by talking about this event.

Dear colleagues, dear Ambassadors, 

This is a moment in which we have to have a look at the world disorder and to try to look for references that go beyond the classical wording on disorder and crisis.

In order to have these stuck with you, I try to put my ideas in order, getting away from the phones and from the daily events and the never-ending flow of news, which are most of them rather depressing.

The first conclusion that I got from my thinking on these days is that, more and more, we are living in a world characterised by greater multipolarity and [less] multilateralism. 

The world is full of poles, not all of them are equal. We are very far away from the world of the 19th century following the Vienna Congress, when five European powers steered the world. And multipolarity is not only referred to military capability and wealth. It is not only the military and the economy, it is also about the thinking, about different truths and different approaches to the world. 

It is clear that in strategic terms, we have to cope with two big superpowers. They are not fully at par yet – the United States and China. But look, when China opened to the world in the middle of the seventies, it [represented] 1% of the United States’ GDP - 1%. And today, it is 80% of the United States’ GDP. Amazing, no? In such a short time, from 1% to 80%. This is going to mark this new bipolarity. It is going to mark our future. 

But there are other poles. There are other poles. In fact, there are maybe a dozen of poles which are strong and indispensable regional actors – and we are one of them. 

We are in an intermediate position. We are not a full-fledged great power. We are not a military alliance. We are not even a state. But we are much more than a regional power. And in this world, everyone is trying to bargain with everyone. There is not a clear consensus on values and on desirable outcomes. 

It is a fragmented and transactional world.

Certainly, this description is oversimplified, but it is clear that the plurality of different actors increases the entropy of the system. And it has an impact on multilateralism, which is weakened due to the lack of global consensus on values and interests.

And you can see that at the United Nations where the United Nations Security Council is unable to reach any kind of agreement, and then they go to UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and then UNGA bypasses the vetoes of the Security Council, and [then] these decisions are rarely implemented because they are not binding. And even the UN Security Council resolutions are [not] implemented.

So, in this context, we have to continue fighting for multilateralism because it is the best recipe against power politics. And we, Europeans, have to reflect on how we can revive multilateralism. 

I hope that during this week, a lot of ideas will come from you, among ourselves, in order to, from your experience from the field, think about it. 

Now going to concrete things. I am not going to talk about everything because it is impossible. But let me start with the most burning issue, which is, of course, the explosion of violence that we have witnessed since the 7th of October 2023. 

When I woke up that morning, from the crisis room phoning [me], I had the same feeling that I had in February 2022 when the bombs started falling on Kyiv. I had the feeling that this was a moment that was going to determine the future for decades and we were in an inflexion point in the history. 

The unfolding tragedy in the Middle East is the outcome of a collective political and moral failure, which the Israeli and the Palestinian people are paying a high price for. 

And this price will continue to increase if we refuse to see the situation as straightforward. 

This moral and political failure is due to a real lack of willingness to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. 

Yes, we committed formally on the Two-State solution but without having any credible roadmap to achieve it. And today, the substance of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not religious nor ethnic, it is a national problem. It is the problem of two people who have the equivalent right to exist on the same land. So, they need to share this land. 

And please, have a look at the Obama paper, [former President of the United States, Barack] Obama’s thoughts on Israel and Gaza. It is very inspiring. 

Yes, two people on the same land – they have to share it. 

And the problem is that today, we do not have any kind of agreement on the terms of the ‘sharing’. Or yes, we had [one] – remember, [the] Olso [Agreements] 30 years ago? Yes, we had [one]. But we have not implemented it at all. That is the problem.

And in the meantime the violence has increased, the figures are appalling, really – not just in the last terrific attack of Hamas against the Israelis and the answer from Israel. It is not just about it – from 2008 [to] 2023 before the 7th of last month, the number of wounded and casualties, it was really too much. 

What has happened? Why have the Oslo Agreement not been implemented? Because the forces of denial in both camps have continued growing under the hubris of some and the desperation of others.

In Israel, the colonisation of the West Bank has been progressing with impunity and violence against the Palestinians – and this has become even more brutal after the 7th of October. Thirty years ago, there were 270,000 settlers in the West Bank. Now there are 700, 000, almost three [or] four times more.

In Palestine, the total lack of perspective and diabolic calculations aiming at favoring extremist forces have led to the marginalisation of moderate forces to the benefit of radical forces [inaudible].

Last year, in the West Bank, there were 154 Palestinians killed and 20 Israelis. This year, to date the number is almost 400, and the barbarism of Hamas’ actions against Israeli civilians - which are absolutely unjustifiable and inexcusable - puts us in front of the paradox that, in recent years, we believed that the Israeli-Palestinian problem was to be circumvented even if the situation on the ground was continuing to deteriorate because of the Abraham Accords. This illusion was shared by everyone, not just by us, by the West. 

It was believed by many that the normalisation, the desirable normalisation of relations between the Arab States and Israel, would bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

That has not happened. It has not happened. Even someone like Jack Sullivan said, before the 7th of October, that “the region has never been so calm for decades”. Never been so calm for decades.

So, how can we explain such blindness? How can we interpret these contradictions? For me, the crux of the matter is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer an Israeli-Arab conflict. Now, it is becoming a religious or civilisation fight. 

I was listening yesterday to President [of Turkey, Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan threatening the West [by] saying “Look, do you want again the fight between the crescent and the crusaders?” - le croissant et les croisés. These are strong words, and we have to do everything we can in order to avoid this confrontation. 

On the Israeli side, extremist forces on the West bank determined to put an end to the Palestinian problem through submission or exile. And in the West Bank, Hamas is not present.

On the Palestinian [side], the rise of Islamist extremism who want to destroy Israel and threaten the West, who in their view, we protect Israel – and certainly, we do.

But, as [former President of the United States, Barack] Obama said, the way Israel prosecutes the right to defence matters. 

There is no successful military operation without a political strategy behind. The military strategy of Israel has also to abide to international law, including the law that seeks to avoid, to every extent possible, the death and suffering of civilian populations. 

Ignoring the human cost could ultimately backfire. I am mentioning Obama, but I can also mention a citation from Condoleezza Rice [former United States Secretary of State], who explained very clearly many years ago, in 2011, that we see always the same scenario. Hamas provokes, Israel responds militarily, and the international community grinds its hands. Condoleezza was saying [this] 12 years ago, this time is not different. 

I wonder, for how many years all the United States’ Secretaries [of State] will have to look for the fine line between Israel’s right to self defence, and protect United States’ interests with [inaudible] allies and friends. The overreaction of the Israelis, in the end, makes them lose the support of international community, and it comes once and again. 2011, 2023, we are in the same place.

Well, what do we have to do? 

First, I think that we, Europeans, have the moral and political obligation to be involved. Not only by providing aid but by contributing to a durable solution. 

We have a certain experience in state-building, and our capacity to contribute to a political solution will be a major test for our credibility.

Certainly, in the short term, the first priority is to bring peace to violence. And this is not going to be easy because the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza is unprecedented. President [of the United States, Joe] Biden has been asking Israel not to be blinded by rage – and I think this is the message that the best friends of Israel have to send to them: not to be blinded by rage.

The right to [self] defense has to be performed in accordance with international law as the European Council has stated.

But one thing has to be clear. We will not go back to the situation of the 6th of October 2023. This has to be an opportunity for peace. This is the core issue that we have to address. There is no military solution to the conflict. Without a political strategy no one [can] win a battle against terrorism. You can crush people, but everywhere we have to look for political solutions. Even if Hamas is uprooted in Gaza, this will not solve the problem of Gaza, not let alone the West Bank problem. So, overreactions are always understandable, but never effective and the words of Condoleezza Rice resound to me as if they had been said this morning. They were twelve years ago.

I think that we have three responsibilities. 

We must continue sticking to a firm but balanced position, and to avoid importing in Europe this conflict at all costs. Only in France, since the 7th of October, there have been 1,000 antisemitic acts. This has to be fought.

Antisemitic or antimuslim sentiments are totally unacceptable. And I want to thank you here, in person, [for] the work of our teams on the ground, for their remarkable contribution for me to be fully informed about how the daily conflict is going on.

The second [element] is the humanitarian solution. Call it a “truce”, a ”window”, whatever. But we need that violence to recede and that international humanitarian law be respected.

From this perspective, I think that a humanitarian pause counterbalanced by access to hostages by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as a first step to their release is an initiative on which we should work. 

A massive increase in humanitarian support, the evacuation of third country nationals from Gaza, a proportionate Israeli response – all of that is necessary, as necessary it is to keep channels of communication [open] with Israel, with the Palestinian Authority, with Qatar, with Egypt, with Saudi Arabia, and of course the United States and the United Nations. 

But the important thing is to think about a comprehensive and definitive settlement which is clearly out of reach today. Today it is out of reach, but on the modalities of a political process involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab States, the European Union, Turkey and the United States and Norway, who has been playing an essential role in the past. 

If we do not succeed, this is the last chance of the Two-State solution. If we do not succeed, we will be definitely in a spiral of violence and mutual hate for generations. 

So, let’s engage on that as much as we can. It will be the most important geopolitical challenge for us. 

But not the only one. Don't forget about Ukraine. More than ever, Ukraine is in [a] struggle to fight against the Russian aggression. If Ukraine loses, we lose. We need to keep our unanimity and our unity in supporting Ukraine. We are the first provider of support to Ukraine. We are, more than the United States, you know the figures.

The prospect of membership, the development of a substantial economic and financial assistance programme, [our] military aid through the European Peace Facility and bilateral channels, the provision of security guarantees are essential components of our work.

This must [help the] Ukrainian military offensive, which is facing hurdles, to contain the Russian invasion and to recover its territory.

You know, the Russian losses are very important, but Russia can re-power. It is ready to sacrifice even more men and equipment without any concern about the human cost of that. 

Before Putin, Stalin believed that quantity is itself a source of quality, as [if] human life had no meaning and no value.

What is unbearable for the Ukrainians in terms of human costs is maybe bearable for the Russians in the short term.

So, the only solution is to continue engaging supporting Ukraine and remaining united on that. Because our core values are at stake. Beyond Ukraine, we should not miss the challenge of enlargement.

Ukraine has become [as] a new candidate and it is pushing the queue of the former candidates who were waiting for years. And the whole queue will move. And I think that we have to recover the time that we have lost in an endless process of membership.

Both wars are different, completely different, in their causes and consequences. 

But let’s be frank: the crisis in the Middle East is already having a lasting impact on our policy in Ukraine.

During my recent visit to Washington, for the Summit, together with the two Presidents, [the President of the European] Commission [Ursula von der Leyen] and the [President of the European] Council [Charles Michel], I had the opportunity to express my concern directly to President Biden, and my colleague Blinken, that our international support for Ukraine may erode in the light of what is being seen as the practice of double standards. 

This is an acute problem that all of you have to contribute to fight. 

All our delegations have a huge responsibility to build a counter narrative adapted to our local interlocutors.

A large number of countries in the Global South see in Ukraine not a global issue, but a regional problem, which affects Europe and the United States - the Western world. It is a West problem. Solve it, and quickly. Because we cannot bear the consequences of this war.

And they will take advantage of the crisis in the Middle East to underscore what they see as a contradiction in our positioning or even a contradiction among Europeans, as expressed during the last United Nations [General Assembly] resolution vote.

I think that we have to reaffirm our support to the United Nations and to the Secretary-General [António Guterres], who is making huge efforts on all fronts.

You, as Ambassadors, have an important role in order to accommodate your language to different contexts, talking as much about resilience or sanctions, as about containment, building and reconciliation. This is part of your skills, and this is part of what I am expecting of you. 

But never make the mistake of framing global issues in terms of the West against the rest. We have to reject this mental frame. It will be devastating [for] our perception in Asia, in Latin America and in Africa. 

We are not the outpost of the Western world. We are the keepers of global and shared values based on the United Nations Charter. And this is the Alpha and Omega of my message. We are the keepers of global and shared values based on the United Nations Charter. Everywhere, every time. This is our message. It is not the West against the rest. It is the values of the United Nations Charter as the best ground of multilateralism. 

Please convey this message loudly. Knowing that every country in the South has its own circumstances and values and they consider that they have no reason to place the Ukrainian challenge above their own priorities, which are related to climate change, digital transition, indebtedness. And they want a better representation within multilateral institutions.

Yes, this is an expression of the multilateral world I was talking [about] at the beginning. And we have to take care of that and understand this mental framework. It is not the West against the rest. We are the supporters of the values of the United Nations Charter as the basis for multilateralism to save peace in the world. 

Then, apart [from] Russia, there is also China, how not? China is the big elephant in the room. I was in China last month and we will hold the next EU-China Summit in one month, approximately. I went to China and I conveyed five key messages, which seem to me [to be] what should guide our policy towards China - our frame policy determinate by the European Union Council: 

First, we do not have any desire to block China's rise or to engage in a strategic competition with it.

And we do not have any difficulty in clarifying our position on Taiwan to Beijing.

We will continue developing multifaceted ties with Taiwan, we do not imply recognition of Taiwan's sovereignty. 

Second, remain firm on the idea of systemic rivalry with China. They do not like it, I understand but I have explained to my Chinese interlocutors that certainly, in some things we are rivals because we defend different socio-political systems. The rest of the world is looking at us, trying to choose between one and the other. China aims to roll back our universalist view of rights, taking the countries of the South, which sometimes are closer to Beijing than to us, as witnesses. 

We have to accept this rivalry and confrontation with China. But being rivals does not mean that we are enemies. We are just presenting different geopolitical systems.

So, this will go into other arenas, this will go also to the digital technology and artificial intelligence that will frame the way that society works. Do not try to escape. Yes, there is a rivalry, an intrinsic rivalry because we have different socio-political systems. We are not enemies, we [have] nothing against the rights of China, it has a role to play in the world, we need China.

But the third point is that we need to make China understand that it will be difficult for China to maintain its access to the European market at a time when European companies are finding it increasingly difficult to work in China.

We have a gigantic trade deficit [between Europe and China], 400 billion [dollars] a year and [is still] growing very quickly, 60% growth in the last two years. This is not due to a simple difference in competitiveness, [which] is China’s argument. This abyssal deficit is largely attributable due to the very high level of public subsidies granted to Chinese companies, as well as to the ever-increasing barriers to entry into the Chinese market. 

The problem is becoming more acute as China's exports leads affecting our main industrial sectors in which we have had, traditionally, an advantage, [such as the] automotive and chemical industries.

If China continues to deny the reality and consequences of this imbalance, it runs the risk of seeing a rising demand in Europe for more protection. We are not protectionist, but maybe we have to protect ourselves. If China does not open, maybe we will have to close. This is something that has to be discussed, which makes me go to the fourth point: de-risking. The de-risking [strategy] is not designed to get out of China, but simply to do what China is already doing: to diversify its sources of supply and, therefore, diversify risk.

I told them at Beida University that we are just following the advice of President [of China] Xi [Jinping] when he said: “China needs to build a domestic supply system that is independently controllable, secure and reliable so that self-circulation can be accomplished at critical moments without having strong dependencies on others.”

Ok, this is de-risking with Chinese characteristics.

And we have our own de-risking, which in the end is more or less the same thing. Common sense. But common sense doesn’t need to be with a belligerent accent or of ideological dimension. It is just a matter of organising better our interactions with this very important partner. 

I think that the Chinese authorities should be much more worried by the fact that the European foreign investment in China is decreasing. The ones who are there stay, but there are no newcomers. 

The newcomers have new opportunities in the vibrant Southeast Asia economies. So, China should be much more worried [about] that than [about] our de-risking. I want to stress the fact that economic security is an important part of our foreign policy, but it has not to be presented as an anti-China plot.

On the contrary, we need China, we have to increase the level of cooperation with China: its systemic weight is so great that there is no chance of solving any of the world challenges without a strong engagement from China. China is burning more coal than the rest of the world together. So how can you pretend to solve the climate change issue without strong engagement from China? 

It is important to continue cooperating and to continue putting clearly what we expect from China. I, personally, told the Chinese friends: “I expect you to do more in Ukraine.”

We do not expect China to take our position but, yes, to engage more with Ukrainians, particularly on humanitarian aid and to convince Russia to get out from Ukraine.

Well, I should talk about Armenia-Azerbaijan, Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, JCPoA, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Serbia-Kosovo, do not worry, I will not. 

First, because it is impossible and second because I want to put my attention on two transversal issues which are very important, I think.

One, security. Remember I am the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. And we need to strengthen our security policy. It has to be understood in the broader sense. Not just military.

Economic security is becoming an increasingly central part of our foreign and security policy. It does not mean that we want to close, on the contrary, we want to develop more investments and trade links all around the world. The Global Gateway is there for that. We have to abandon the old-style extractivism. 

“Where is the lithium?” People in Latin America look at us as the ones who come once again looking for minerals. No, it is not a matter of “where are your minerals?” It is “how can we build, with you, partnerships in order to use the natural resources, so that you add value, and you benefit from our demand”.

We have to have look at the Inflation Reduction Act’s consequences. It is not a minor thing. We have to continue working for [on] the Enlargement, which is maybe our most important foreign policy. In the meantime, the European Political Community has to be developed. 

On security, I am very happy to say that the Stategic Compass is going step by step, advancing. We held the first military exercise among European Union armies, out of the NATO framework, in Spain, the other day. Almost 3 000 soldiers from nine European Union countries. This is the Rapid Deployment Capacity [in] the making, and it will happen. It will be the greatest contribution of this [mandate]: to make the security policy high on the agenda.

A word on Sahel. Sooner or later, we will suffer from the consequences of what happens there. More military juntas mean more insecurity, more instability, more migratory flows towards Europe. Our strategic patience has not led to results. In Niger, our lack of unity among Europeans has weakened the answer of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). We have failed to support ‘African solutions for African problems’ - one of these mantras that we repeat - like the ‘Two-States solution’ that, in practical terms, does not follow.

All in all, we are making progress in the field of security and defence, but much more has to be done. We need more financial [means] and we need more coordination among our armies.

The second transversal thing is the relationship with the Global South. Global South - I do not like the word, this is a complex set of people, very heterogenous with different positions. But this is a concept that has been [brought] to the public debate. And now, today, is being used by them, so we cannot avoid the fact that they call it and feel it as being something that exists as an answer to the West that dominated the world for the last 500 years. We understand now that it is over, intellectually. I think that we have not taken yet the consequences and the practical conclusions of this new reality.

Yes, the majority of the countries have condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine. But they have been doing lip service. Our sanctions have not been followed by many. And the current Israel-Palestinian conflict will increase the accusations of double standards. 

There are two things that have to be taken into account when we talk about resentment against the West. One is the pandemic, and the other is climate change.

Have a look at the graph of the number of vaccinations across the time since the pandemic started. You will see that in October 2021, two years ago, we - the high-income countries - we had 1.4 doses per head. If you were an inhabitant of a low-income country, you had 30 times less, 0.04.

Yes, we had been the greatest provider of vaccines. Yes, we had been the greatest exporter of vaccines. But the reality is that when we had 1.4 doses per head, they had 30 times less. And this was a matter of life or death. And they had that very much present. They were lagging behind us.

The second thing is climate change. If you talk about climate change, keep in mind that we are responsible for almost 25% of the cumulated global CO2 emissions, almost one quarter.

Africa, where there are three times more people than here, is responsible for 3%. And South America is responsible for 3%. So, it is understandable that they tell us: “Yes, there is a problem. Certainly, there is a problem, but who created the problem? Certainly not us. You created it. So, it is clear that you have to be ready to facilitate more support for the green transition.” 

But keep in mind the socioeconomic situation of the people around the world. There are 600 million people in Africa that have never seen an electric [light] bulb. So, do not tell them that they have to be green and digital because they will say: “What are you talking about? I have never seen a computer screen; I have never seen a light bulb. Green and digital? What does it mean? I want to eat.”

Their priorities are different. We think on a 20-years horizon, they think on a 20-days horizon. This has to be very much present in our approach because, yes, they have to contribute to the fight against climate change, but there is a shared endeavour that comes from different responsibilities. And we, Europeans, have done our part.

When we promised €100 000 million to support the climate transition, we have done our part. Sell it, explain it, because it seems that we have not done [much]. More has to be done, but do not forget what we have already done in order to help the [Global] South on [with] their green transition. 

Our partnership with South Africa marks a good way. [The] African Union, being a member of the G20, marks the way. There have to be more engagements with international structures, financial institutions. We have to let them room, because when we created this world order, many of them did not exist, they were colonies. Others had such a small economic influence that they did not count. 

Now, they count. They are independent countries, and they want to have their capacity to participate in the building not of the order that was built 70 years ago, but the order that will come out of the challenges we are facing.

So, support Ukraine actively against Russia’s disinformation. We have to keep an eye on our societies not to get tired of supporting Ukraine, fighting against the tiredness, showing that our policy in the Middle East is first and foremost a principle policy, rooted in international law. Never forget to mention that when you talk about the right of the Israelis’ right to defend [themselves], which certainly [they] have, and have to use it. And make everything you can in order to strengthen our links with the Global South.

In 25 years from now, One out of four people in the world – 25% of the people in the world – will be living in Africa. There is a youth bomb, and we know it. 

The youth in Africa, young people in Africa do not want to be a problem, they want to have their opportunities. But can you imagine? One out of four human beings will be in Africa. Four of the six most growing countries in the world are Africans. 

Africa is not just a land of misery and migration. It is not just a land of wars. Yes, there are a lot, but it is also a land of opportunities and where humankind will be growing. We have to be more active in Africa. We want to say that we are partners of choice. Have we succeeded in that? I think that not enough. If we want to be the partner of choice of Africa, we have to do more, we have to do more on all fronts.

I [gave] you a lot of duties to do, I count on you. It is a critical moment, work hard.

Thank you. 

Peter Stano
Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0)460 75 45 53
Gioia Franchellucci
Press Officer for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 229-68041