Mainstream German newspapers do not normally lend support to the growing public dissatisfaction about how today’s European Union’s official state policy has become promoting an ever-closer political union. However, it appears there are limits. In a noteworthy article, the highly respected “Berliner Zeitung” commented on statements made by Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.
Widely quoted and equally widely criticized, his speech in front of aspiring young diplomats at the European Diplomatic Academy in the Belgian city of Bruges referred to Europe as “a garden” whilst calling the rest of the world “a jungle.”
He stated that everything would work in Europe, it is the best combination of political freedoms, economic prosperity and social cohesion. The rest of the world is, according to him, however, no garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle and this jungle might try and invade the garden. According to Berliner Zeitung, Borrell tried to present an analogy of a safe and orderly EU alongside a dangerous, chaotic world while political analysts challenged his underlying sentiment as imperialist and xenophobic.
No small fry one feels inclined to say – but what could have triggered the EU foreign policy chief to choose these words? For sure he cannot claim a trainee went linguistically over the top, the intellectual property copyright of what was said belongs to him alone.
Bruges center of EU federalism
Belgium is a fine country, a proud nation and a state often unfairly described as if it is only the EU and NATO member that merits mentioning. Granted the EU has pulling power – a look at the number of lobbyists and global enterprises in the EU headquarters suffices to understand the relevance of being one of three seats of the EU besides Luxembourg and Strasbourg. But all that fades away the moment one travels overland, for example to the hilly Ardennes region in the south or a magnificent coastline to the west. Here, everything seems “normal,” the EU bureaucracy appears to be far away, and citizens go about their daily lives as in any other country, except for one place: Bruges.
Famous for handicrafts, canals and charmingly medieval atmosphere, it plays host to the College of Europe, the oldest academic institution solely specializing in postgraduate European research and studies. It has a very good reputation if learning everything about how the EU operates and potentially sourcing a career therein afterward is your academic and professional cup of tea. This year the European External Action Service (EEAS) decided to add a new program, not for postgraduate students but young diplomats, and this was the occasion when Borrell spoke up and delivered a speech based on his assumptions and personal feelings.
The sad thing is that those 42 young diplomats embarking on their nine months of classes and courses now have the impression that Europe is paradise on Earth whereas the rest of the “other” world is a risky, threatening place. Nothing can be further removed from the truth and one can only hope that after the event in the corridors and cafes of the city reality kicked in and life returned to diplomatic norms and conventions.
Similarly sad, if that is the appropriate way to describe what had happened here a few days ago, is that it backfires on an entire institution. It is correct to say that with two former leading European politicians in the driving seats (Herman Van Rompuy as head of the Administrative Council and Federica Mogherini as rector of the College of Europe) no one would expect anti-EU rhetoric emanating from the classrooms. Yet no one would have ever expected that Bruges would declare everywhere else but Europe a jungle either, this is a new low, as a matter of fact, lower than zero.
At a time when in far too many European nations extreme political thoughts are promoted in ever-increasing numbers, politicians should know about the effect of their words and choose them carefully so as not to further incite hatred in society. Reading between Borrell’s lines one gets the impression that North America is part of the jungle and so is New Zealand. Japan is apparently a threat to his European garden and so is South Africa. One can only imagine the shock nationals of those four and all other countries of our shared planet would sense after hearing what Borrell said in public.
Fair enough, an opening event for a new academic/diplomatic program is usually an occasion with little or no publicity. Yet Borrell for sure would know that even if only one journalist would pick up what he said and publish it, the wider world would listen in or read along. Ever more so as his address was supposed to be broadcast online, not only this, it had been announced in advance on the college’s website. So there must have been a master plan, but which one?
Therefore, the question on everyone’s mind is: Is he a lone wolf, so to speak, or is there a certain way of thinking somewhere in Brussels which would be supportive of Borrell? Or did he try and appease the aforementioned far-right and at times even far-left forms of extreme populism by copying their anti-democracy rhetoric? In the latter case, he would best be classified as a moderate center politician trying to catch votes from far-right members of the electorate, but Borrell is not running for any publicly elected office. Or is he? Perhaps in Spain at some point in the near future?
The one positive aspect arising from an otherwise unacceptable outburst that distorts our reality is that it underlines that Europe is at a crossroads indeed, or shall we say, has finally realized it would be better to be at a crossroads. Which way is forward for Europe? Which way forward for the EU in a post-Brexit, post-pandemic world now facing the ongoing war in Ukraine and a related unexpected energy crisis?
The only way forward would be European and global cooperation in trying to restore peaceful world order and not alienating over 150 fellow nations and their peoples. The only logical way forward would be to make the inner workings of the EU more democratic and the entire approach to and of policy-making much more socially inclusive. The only further way forward would be to enlarge in an orderly fashion and before dreaming of “going eastwards,” the EU must open its doors to Türkiye.
If Borrell has become the official opinion maker of Europe, Europe as a democratic role model has lost any of its remaining appeals. Let’s hope those 42 young diplomats will demonstrate to the world that it was an incident that should not be forgotten but at the same time an incident that does not represent official or unofficial EU policies.