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Borrell writes his job description

The job of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs is not an easy one. On the one hand, Josip Borrell has been up against the determination of member states to keep the competence for themselves. On the other hand, the Commission and Council Presidents are both eager to step in and claim the credit for any major EU achievements in foreign policy. But in what’s probably a valedictory message, the High Representative has written a blog post setting out the global challenges that the EU faces -and how it should respond.

My new book Europe between 2 Wars is out. It compiles opinion pieces, blog posts and speeches of 2023. This book allows to take stock of the lessons learnt since four years for EU’s foreign and security policy but also to look forward and define the main work strands for the EU in coming months at a time when the wars against Ukraine and in the Middle East are threatening its future.

In 2019, when I started my job as High Representative, I said that “Europe needs to learn to speak the language of power”. I was already convinced that security needed to become a major priority for Europe. But I had no precise idea at that time how much Europe would be in danger in the years to come.

We live in an increasingly multipolar world where multilateralism is in decline. Power politics dominates international relations again. All forms of interactions are weaponised, whether it is trade, investment, finance, information or migration. This implies a paradigm shift in the way we think about European integration and our relations with the rest of the world. Concretely, it requires to act decisively on three work strands:


1 Strengthening European economic security

First, Europe’s security needs to be understood in a broader sense. During the COVID-19 pandemic we discovered that Europe did no longer produce medical face masks or Paracetamol. And our heavy dependence on Russian energy reinforced Putin’s belief that Europe would not be able to respond to his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Our excessive dependencies on a few countries for many critical goods put us in danger. For too long, we, Europeans, have lived in the illusion that the doux commerce should be enough to bring peace globally. We found out the hard way that the world does not work like this.

That is the reason why we have decided to ‘derisk’ our economy by limiting excessive dependencies and taking action in particular on raw materials and components critical for the green and digital transitions.

This is about ‘de-risking’, not ‘decoupling’. The European Union has always been open to trade and investment and wants to remain so. By de-risking we mean, for example, to strengthen trade and investment links with Latin America or Africa in order to diversify our supply chains.

When it comes to China, in particular, we need to reduce our excessive dependencies in specific domains, especially those at the heart of the green and digital transitions, and we need to rebalance our trade relations. This rebalancing is urgent. Last year, our trade deficit with China was a staggering € 291 billion, making up 1.7 % of EU GDP.

Just last month, the Chinese government revealed plans to invest massively in high-tech manufacturing. This means that our tech industry is going to face even fiercer competition in the coming years. It is crucial that we shield our industry against unfair competition. We have already started to do so for our electric vehicle, our solar panel and other net-zero industries.

Our values and political systems differ significantly and we have opposing views regarding the universality of human rights but let’s be clear: we don’t want to go back to a block-to-block confrontation. We have become too interdependent for that. And cooperation with China is essential to solve the main global challenges of our time like climate change.

2 Moving defence to the heart of European policies

While security is more than defence, there is no doubt that defence remains and will remain at the core of any security strategy. With the war of aggression that Russia is waging against Ukraine, we saw the return of territorial rivalries and the use of violent military force in Europe that we had intellectually dismissed.

At a time when American involvement in Europe is becoming less certain, this war poses an existential threat to the EU. If Putin manages to destroy the independence of Ukraine, he will not stop there. If he prevails – despite clear support for Ukraine by Europeans and the US public – this sends a dangerous signal about our capacity to stand up for what we believe in.

We need a paradigm shift on European defence. Our Union was built around the internal market and the economy. And this has worked well to bring peace between the peoples of the Union. But we can’t just continue along this path. We have for too long delegated our security to the US and in the last 30 years, after the fall of the Berlin wall, we have allowed a silent disarmament.

We must assume our strategic responsibility and become able to defend Europe by ourselves, building a strong European pillar inside NATO. And we need to make this leap forward in a very short period of time. Not because we intend to go to war. On the contrary: we want to prevent it by having the means to credibly deter any aggressor.

This does not mean creating a European army. Defence is and will remain for a foreseeable future an exclusive competence of our Member States. It is first about spending more at national level. In 2023, we have spent on average 1.7% of our GDP on defence, this percentage must increase to more than 2%.

But, even more importantly, it is about spending together to fill gaps, avoid duplications and increase interoperability. Only 18% of equipment purchases by our armies are currently made cooperatively. Even though we set a 35% benchmark in 2007.

We also urgently need a leap forward for our defence industry. Since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, European armies bought 78% of new equipment from outside the EU. We have made important progress in recent months, but we still have difficulties in sending enough ammunitions to support Ukraine. Additionally, we face significant qualitative challenges in new military technologies like drones or Artificial Intelligence.

One major lesson of the war against Ukraine is that technological superiority is key. Especially when faced with an adversary for whom lives are cheap. We need to have a home-grown defence industry to meet our needs.

To achieve this, we must invest massively. The most promising avenues for achieving this goal are: first, changing the European Investment Bank lending policy to allow it to invest in the defence sector, and second issuing common debt, just as we did successfully to face the COVID-19 pandemic. These discussions are however in their early stages among our Member States, and it is critical to get everyone on board.

The leap forward in defence also requires a shift in mind-set. I have been told by arms producers that they struggle to recruit the brightest engineering talent. Similarly, private investors are often deterred from investing in defence companies. Every European must understand that effective defence is a prerequisite for the survival of our social, environmental and democratic model. 

3 Working to prevent the “rest against the West”

Ukraine is not the only war in our immediate neighbourhood. Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s disproportionate response are ongoing and risk spreading war in the whole Middle East region, as we have witnessed with the Iranian attack on Israel during the last week end. In this conflict, our reaction has cast doubt on Europe’s capacity to be an effective geopolitical actor. 

On Ukraine we have proven that we can respond decisively because we were united. But faced with tens of thousands of dead, mainly women and children, and 2 million people starving, we were not able until now to stop the fighting in Gaza, put an end to the humanitarian disaster, free the hostages and start implementing effectively the two state solution, the only way to bring a sustainable peace to the region. 

Our limited influence on this conflict, which so directly impacts our future, is not due to a lack of means. We are Israel’s leading partner in trade, investment and people exchanges and our association agreement with this country is the most comprehensive of all. We are also the main international financial supporter of the Palestinian people. 

But we were quite inefficient until now because, as a Union – bound by unanimity – we were divided. Our common position has been sometimes behind the one of the United States, for example on sanctioning violent settlers in the West Bank. Moreover, we have sent contradictory signals for example regarding our support to UNRWA. 

Our division has cost us dearly in the Arab world but also in a great number of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The difference in our responses to wars in Ukraine and Palestine has been used extensively by Russian propaganda. And this propaganda was quite successful, as we have witnessed in particular in the Sahel, because it came on top of existing grievances such as the unequal distribution of vaccines during COVID-19, too restrictive migration policies, the lack of funding to tackle climate change or international organisations reflecting the world of 1945 and not the one of today. 

We need to act decisively in the coming months to prevent the consolidation of an alliance of ‘the rest against the West’, including as a consequence of the Middle East conflict. To effectively countering this threat, we need to stay true to our principles. Everywhere. Not just in words, but also by using our tools when those principles are violated. The decisiveness we demonstrated on Ukraine, should guide us in any other part of the world. 



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