Sorry, not sorry: EU’s top diplomat stands firm amid racism backlash

By Suzanne Lynch * – POLITICO

Josep Borrell has a history of making off-the-cuff and sometimes off-color remarks

‘I am sorry if some have felt offended,’ Borrell writes after his ‘garden’ vs ‘jungle’ analogy prompt cries of colonialism and racism

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is seeking to draw a line under controversial remarks he made last week — instead, his half-baked apology has raised more questions than answers.

In a blog post published Tuesday night, the EU’s top diplomat insisted that his comments about Europe being a “garden” and the rest of the world a “jungle” — a comparison many described as colonialist and even racist — were “misinterpreted.” But rather than a full-throated mea culpa, he delivered a classic non-apology apology: “I am sorry if some have felt offended,” he wrote.

It caps a torrid week for Borrell, who has a history of making off-the-cuff — and sometimes off-color — remarks since assuming the helm of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in 2019. Over the span of just a few days, he also issued a bellicose threat to “annihilate” the Russian army if it used nukes and chided his own diplomatic corps for its passivity.

But it was the garden vs. jungle analogy that prompted particular outrage, showing how the remarks can risk undermining the EU’s moral authority to hold others to account.

Yet many diplomats around town have shrugged their shoulders at Borrell’s latest comments. And there is no suggestion of any move to censure him formally.

“This is more of the same, but there is an acceptance that he will be in situ until 2024,” said one EU official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The latest controversy erupted last week when he told a gathering of envoys in Bruges that “Europe is a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”

The metaphor was immediately slammed as imperialist. The UAE — not exactly a bastion of human rights — summoned the acting head of the EU delegation to the UAE, condemning Borrell’s remarks as “inappropriate and discriminatory.”

Borrell’s analogy, delivered as part of scripted remarks, was the latest in a week of eyebrow-raising speeches from the foreign policy chief — who already has a history of unguarded commentary.

On October 10, the Spaniard chastised his own diplomats, telling an annual conference that he sometimes had to hear about what was happening abroad from the press rather than from his own diplomats.

“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,” he said.

Some in Brussels quietly welcomed Borrell delivering some home truths to the EEAS team of ambassadors. But Borrell’s intervention later that week rang alarm bells.

He warned the West would “annihilate” the Russian army if it used nuclear weapons— a break with the carefully phrased language deployed by Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has studiously avoided using escalatory language in response to Russia’s saber-rattling.

Borrell’s loose way with words recalled a similar incident in the early weeks of the war in Ukraine when he announced the EU would send fighter jets to Ukraine. A few days later, Polish President Andrzej Duda, standing alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, ruled it out.

“We are not going to send any jets to Ukraine,” the Polish president said.

In the end, furious EU diplomats pointed out that Borrell’s comments had in fact dampened enthusiasm for more robust support for Ukraine during a period when NATO allies were wary about endorsing anything that might be seen as dragging NATO into direct conflict with Russia.

Borrell’s blunt and off-message remarks are in some ways explained by language choice. The self-confident Spaniard likes to speak to the media in English, despite lacking perfect fluency. Notably, his comments to the press after this week’s foreign ministers’ meetings were in Spanish, perhaps a recognition that conversing on sensitive matters in a non-native language is risky business.

Just ask Macron, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and scores of other European leaders who tend to stick to their native languages in public, despite competent English.

Memories are also fresh of Borrell’s humiliating visit to Moscow in February 2019, when he stood by as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner” and accused European leaders of lying about opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. It was a disastrous diplomatic foray that made global headlines, particularly after Russia moved to expel three EU diplomats hours after the Lavrov-Borrell meeting.

Significantly, Borrell used his favored medium — a blog post — to try and clean up the mess after the Moscow visit. At the time of that controversy, more than 70 MEPs called for his resignation in a letter.

This time, there are no such calls, and the European Commission has backed him when asked this week if it still had confidence in Borrell.


*Chief Brussels Correspondent, POLITICO. Host of EU Confidential. Previously Washington, Dublin, Brussels. Jacopo Barigazzi and Ali Walker contributed reporting.