Opening remarks at the 2020 EU Heads of Delegation meeting


Brussels – EEAS. HR/VP Josep Borrell underlines the importance of strong EU international engagement at a time of crisis. He calls on EU Ambassadors to be outward facing, results oriented and pro-active to make sure the EU handles the on-going battle of narratives.

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Dear Helga [Schmid, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service],

Dear colleagues, dear Ambassadors

I am happy to be able to speak to you, even if I regret that it is through another videoconference. Videoconferencing has become our ‘new normal’.

It is the first time ever that we have had to organise the annual Heads of Delegation meeting online. Of course, everybody would have been much happier, would have preferred that we could together in person, but let us try to make the best of this opportunity.

Sitting behind a screen inevitably creates a sense of distance. This year, we have been forced to do foreign policy without much travelling. This may seem almost a contradiction in terms - but here we are. All this is an unhappy consequence of the pandemic. Here in Brussels, we continue to face a very alarming situation. Europe has become again the centre of the pandemic which is raging around the world.

You know that the last few months have been extremely challenging for all of us - both politically and personally. So, allow me to start by thanking every one of you for the hard work in tough times and the sense of commitment that you have shown to the European cause. This will also be very much needed in the months ahead, because the situation is not yet finished.

This coming week, we will discuss where we are as the European Union and how we can find effective answers to the multitude of challenges that we are facing, and, above all, how you, as the representatives of the European Union, can best fly the European Union flag and express the EU’s voice. This at a time when, frankly, this is both more needed than ever but also more difficult, with all the headwinds that we are facing.

This opening message is not the right format to give you a detailed analysis of the state of our world or to explain my political orientations on what the European Union should do on different topics, countries and regions.

We will have a chance to do this when we have a proper session on Friday. I will then share with you my impressions on the past 12 months [as High Representative/Vice-President] and what I have learnt. And we will take a forward look at the year ahead.

In that session, I very much want to hear from you how we can best strengthen the European Union’s role and impact. In every crisis, there are also opportunities. So let us discuss these opportunities on Friday.

For now, let me make three simple, horizontal points.

First, there is a tendency in every crisis, both at the level of individuals as well as that of groups, to ‘turn inwards’: to forget about the rest, to close doors and go home; to focus on the immediate and most urgent and to shut out the dangerous world.

*inaudible due to technological issue*

This attitude we cannot afford. We are connected to the world. The crisis itself but also all the other problems we face can only be solved with international cooperation. It is a cliché to say this, but it happens to be true.

In all this, you as Ambassadors have a double role: to project the European Union’s policies to the world and thereby give a clear signal of our enduring interest in international cooperation.

But also to give feedback to the Brussels machinery on what our partners are thinking and doing. More than ever, we need – I need – you to keep doing this, precisely at a time when Brussels is very much busy with itself.

Please do not be shy this week. We really need you to keep us informed about what our partners are thinking and doing. You are there not just to receive, but also to feed back to the centre. Let us hope the centre will be able to use this information as we need it.

Second, in the European Union, we have given ourselves a very complex institutional set up. Why? For historic and political reasons. And we have perfected these institutional discussions almost into a form of art. I must say that I have never been too keen on this.

For sure, my experience as High Representative and Vice-President [of the European Commission] has convinced me even more that we need to think as One EU. Away from the divisions of the [European] Commission, the Council, the [European] External Action Service, we need to think and act as a single body.

That is why we invented “Team Europe”. As you know, Team Europe has become and should remain the official branding for our joint action on helping partners to deal with the pandemic, but also to bring together the EU institutions, including the EU financial institutions and the EU Member States. Team Europe means all of us: all the institutions plus the Member States. For me it should become the rule every time and everywhere.

It was born with the [coronavirus] pandemic and it has to stay after the pandemic. It represents a brand, a way to approach others and for the others to understand what Europe is. It is a way to act all together, because all together we are much more powerful and effective.

That is also true for the Delegations. I count on you to leave behind any old reflexes to think in terms of silos: the Commission on one side, the [European] External Action Service, the Member States. Of course, everyone has their roles and their competences and prerogatives. But we cannot afford to spend time on silly arguments, especially not now, in times of crisis.

There is not a surplus of European power in this world. So we need to act as a team: United Europe, as my friend [the German Minister of Foreign Affairs] Heiko Maas calls it. We have the European Union, now we have to act as a united Europe.

We need deep and systematic cooperation. What matters is what works. And if we want to deliver, we have to work more and more in a “cooperation mode”.

The third message is that this crisis is a stress test for every country and political system. It accentuates strengths and reveals weaknesses. Every situation of stress, even in physics, produces this result: accentuating strengths and revealing weaknesses. We ought to be clear that our reputation is on the line. In Europe itself but also around the world – through the famous ‘battle of narratives’.

If we are honest, we have to recognise that the European Union had a tough start. But then, quickly, the ‘system’ kicked in and took big, bold decisions, breaking taboos. The crisis has had the effect of pushing European integration, as has happened in every crisis. The European Union has been built on crisis, and it is true once again. Notably with the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan. But the story isn’t over and our actions in the coming week and months will determine our reputation and our international influence.

So we need to be mobilised on all fronts and I want to ask you to do your part so that, as we often say, ‘Europe comes out of the crisis stronger’. This is an appeal to all of you to do whatever you can to make it a reality. Europe is being built on crises and we have to come out of the crisis stronger.

The world needs an engaged European Union, able to act. But also Europeans need an engaged European Union, able to act. And we need to act as if our reputation is on the line – because it is on the line.

When I started talking about the battle of narratives, I got a lot of criticism. What do we see? We see that there is a real battle of narratives with everyone presenting him/herself as the most capable to solve the crisis at home and to help others to solve it abroad. The European Union has an important role to play and you have to participate in this battle of narratives, presenting the European Union as we intend to be: a geopolitical actor. But as I will discuss on Friday, before being geopolitical you have to be political.

With these introductory words, I wish you a successful and stimulating week. I hope that we are going to develop our capacity for strategic analysis, and our strategic understanding of the world. We will meet again for a proper session and discussion at the end of the week where we will exchange on what we have learned during these coming days. Today is just the starting point of an intense conference.

Thank you very much for participating in it. This is a way of being together, sharing experiences, sharing thoughts and understanding, as the big family that we are, as a group of men and women that have the big honour of representing the European Union in the world.

Thank you very much.

Link to the video:

Nabila Massrali
Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0) 2 29 88093
+32 (0) 460 79 52 44