UPDATE: Last week, Josep Borrell delivered one of the best and worst diplomatic speeches in the space of 3 days. Further down, you can find an analysis of the 10 October speech for the EEAS ambassadors. Here you can learn more about 13 October speech at the opening of the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges.
Clarity is power! And High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell’s speech at the European External Action Service (EEAS) had brutal clarity in the diagnosis of the current situation.
Borrell stated that Europe is fighting for the survival of its ‘operating system’ that links prosperity, democracy, and security. The stakes are even higher. Europe is fighting for the survival of a few centuries of the enlightenment legacy built on ideas of modernity and humanism.
Other ‘narratives’ are on the table, and the success of the European one is not a given. For many people in the world, the link between prosperity and democracy is less and less visible. Authoritarianism is on the rise. If Europe does not re-establish this link between, democracy, human rights, and human well-being and prosperity, Europe’s narrative will fail not only abroad but also at home.
Borrell argues that, visually speaking, Europe has to re-calibrate its strategic triangle built around security, prosperity, and democracy. The geometry of this triangle has been distorted. For example, driven by economic reasoning, Europe has created a heavy dependence on cheap Russian gas which endangered the EU’s security over the last few months.
Borrell was also clear that old dependencies should not be replaced by new ones. Russian gas should not be simply replaced by gas from the USA or the Middle East. Interdependencies are no longer strengths, as they have been during the era of globalisation. They are becoming vulnerabilities as interdependencies are increasingly weaponised, whether it is energy, information, finance, data, or transportation.
Why did Borrell call for ‘a revolution’ in the EU’s organisational culture?
The head of EEAS questioned some of the pillars of the EU’s organisational culture which is based on the success of a technocratic approach to EU integration. This very success triggered compliance and the risk of hubris. While Borrell’s calls for reform make a lot of sense, they will be difficult to realise as obstacles for change are deeply entwined into the EU’s modus operandi. Anyone embarking on this type of reform should watch ‘Yes Minister’, which describes how difficult it is to alter the way of thinking in a bureaucracy.
Borrell’s call for a few major changes in EEAS, the department he leads, could apply to the rest of the EU’s system.
First, he calls for more political thinking. This challenges the very essence of the EU’s modus operandi. Since early integration around the joint management of steel and coal, the EU has always argued that political issues can be solved through economic and technological cooperation. While this logic made a lot of sense in the decades after the devastating Second World War, it has gradually evolved into a mantra that any societal problem can be solved by a technocratic solution.
The outcome/output/impact logic can be used for managing projects but not to address strategic issues. Europe needs more strategic leaders of the calibre of Pompidou, Churchill, or Brant to name a few.
Second, Borell challenged the EU’s ‘righteousness’ approach which could lead to strategic hubris. Again, this approach was triggered by the ‘end of history’ thinking and the continuous successes of EU integration. The successes triggered risks that Borrell summarises in a passage which will be quoted frequently in the coming years:
We have to listen more. We have to be much more on “listening mode” to the other side – the other side is the rest of the world. We need to have more empathy. We tend to overestimate the rational arguments. “We are the land of reason”. We think that we know better what is in other people’s interests. We underestimate the role of emotions and the persisting appeal of identity politics.
Specifically, he questioned the ‘Brussels effect’ by warning that EU’s regulatory solutions should not be exported and imposed on societies worldwide, due to cultural, historical, and economic differences. It is a healthy warning which should be taken with caution. Namely, at least in the digital realm, the EU’s solutions on data, anti-monopoly, and AI are widely appreciated as human-centred governance solutions. Thus Brussels should preserve the governance dynamic in the digital realm but with necessary humility when it comes to ‘exporting rules’.
Third, his call for the EEAS ambassador to take risks will hit the wall of EU’s organisational culture, which tends to avoid risks. Often, heavy and complex procedures aim to avoid risks and shield officials from personal responsibilities for choices and decisions.
Fourth, he calls for more initiative which is also not typical for any and, in particular, a big bureaucracy such as the EU. Deeper changes in organisational culture will be needed to realise Borrell’s call that:
‘We have never done it’ is not a recipe. Maybe we have to start doing things that we have never done in the past. When we hesitate, we regret it.
For a long time, the EU was preparing officials for a technocratic and risk avoidance machinery. It remains to be seen how fast Europe can nurture new thinking. Necessity will force politicians to change and deal with uncertainties as it has been the case with the Ukraine war. Europe’s teaching institutions should evolve from the Procrustean beds of Bologna towards more critical thinking that will nurture future leaders who can take risks and think out of the mould, especially in times of crisis which an uncertain future will certainly bring.
How would Borrell change EU diplomacy?
After he painted a wider geopolitical and organisational canvas, Borrell focused on specific changes in EU diplomacy.
First, behind Borrell’s statement that he is the ‘Foreign Minister of Europe’ there is a call for esprit de corps of EU diplomacy. It will take time to develop, especially within a community which is coming from two different professional circles: EU officials and diplomats from member states. When Borrell calls EEAS diplomats to ‘behave [as] if you were an Embassy’, he points to the inertia from the previous era when the EU was represented by the EU Commission focusing on foreign countries mainly on technical cooperation. EU diplomacy must evolve into full political representation and ‘real diplomacy’.
Second, Borrell questioned diplomatic reporting, the core function of diplomatic services. This part of his speech will be quoted:
‘I need you to report fast, in real time on what is happening in your countries. I want to be informed by you, not by the press. Sometimes, I knew more of what was happening somewhere by reading the newspapers than reading your reports. Your reports come sometimes too late. Sometimes, I read something happening somewhere and I ask “what [does our Delegation [say]. For the time being, nothing. “For the time being, nothing” is not affordable. You have to be on 24-hours reaction capacity. Immediately – something happens, you inform. I do not want to continue reading in the newspapers about things that happened somewhere with our Delegation having said nothing.
Here, on the ‘immediacy’ aspect of diplomatic reporting, diplomats are losing battle with traditional and, increasingly, social media. But, being people on the spot, they can provide inputs of local ‘flavours’ and dynamics which one cannot easily depict from the internet. Thus, instead of ‘immediacy’ the focus should be on the contextual quality of diplomatic reports.
Third, he calls for more public diplomacy:
I need my delegations to step up on social media, on TV, in debates. Retweet our messages, our [European] External Action Service materials. Certainly, my blog, which is the everyday “consigna”. Tailor it to the local circumstances, use local languages. The first problem is that we speak English but a lot of people around the world do not speak English and do not understand if we address them in English. Do it in local languages. We still have a “reflex” of European culture: we speak our languages, and we expect the rest of the world to understand us.
Ultimately, public diplomacy is a battle of narratives ‘to win the spirits and the souls of people’.
Borell’s speech is historical in its boldness, clarity, and vision. He outlined issues that will ‘make or break’ Europe and the world. With all current deficiencies, Europe’s enlightenment tradition is still the most desirable way of organising human societies. It puts humans in the centre, nurtures modernity, and supports progress. Revitalising Europe’s Enlightenment flame is a battle for survival, not only of Europe, but also of the very future of humanity.
Good luck Borrell!
For more on the future of diplomacy