Josep Borrell: Europe’s undiplomatic envoy

The 72-year-old Spanish Socialist has ruffled feathers in Moscow, Washington, Tel Aviv and London — not to mention in Catalonia.


7/30/19, 4:05 AM CET

Updated 8/4/19,

MADRID — Josep Borrell has big ambitions for the post of EU foreign policy chief, and a strong temperament that could make it work — if he doesn't alienate everyone in the process.

Spain’s acting foreign minister, nominated to be the next high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, has built a reputation for speaking his mind and challenging authority over a four-decade career in some of the top jobs in Spanish and European politics. Popular among Spanish voters, he shows a decidedly undiplomatic relish for conflict.

Recent examples include describing Russia as "our old enemy" — triggering a spat between Moscow and Madrid; saying the Americans had only "killed four Indians" before independence (faced with the anger of U.S. indigenous rights groups, he apologized); and decrying Washington's "cowboy" diplomacy on Venezuela.

“He’s not fond of sugary diplomatic language,” said a close collaborator.

The veteran Catalan socialist is, however, cautious about his chances of getting the European Parliament's approval. His nomination is part of a top jobs package that will put Germany's Ursula von der Leyen in the European Commission presidency and Belgium's Charles Michel in the presidency of the European Council.

“Some say he’s not too diplomatic. That could be a strength as well as a weakness” — European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici

“I don’t want to speak as high representative,” Borrell told POLITICO at his ministry in Madrid, pointing out that MEPs' cross-examination of Commission nominees is no “mere formality.” (Von der Leyen has already secured the Parliament's approval and Michel's Council appointment doesn't need it.)

If he does pass that hurdle, Borrell will succeed Federica Mogherini as the EU's top diplomat in November. The contrast between the two could hardly be more apparent.

When Mogherini took on the job, she was 41 and had little executive experience, beyond eight months as Italian foreign minister. Borrell is a 72-year-old veteran of the Socialist takeover in Spain in 1982, and served in multiple ministries before running for prime minister and presiding over the European Parliament.

He credited Mogherini with working tirelessly to build out the European External Action Service and reaching common positions among EU member states, and warned that there is little leeway for a “transcendental” reform of EU foreign policy. “There will be changes, of course, but I can’t anticipate them,” Borrell said.

Borrell and current EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini | Aris Oikonomou/EFE via EPA

He'll need all his experience and network to reach elusive unanimity and deliver what EU leaders have set as one of their top four priorities: becoming more “united” and “assertive” on the global stage.

At the same time, the travel schedule could test someone of his age, and his track record may prove a burden: He has bruised egos in the Kremlin, Washington, Tel Aviv and London; there have been controversies, including a sanction for insider trading; and he has earned enemies — not least in his native Catalonia, whose pro-independence regional government is campaigning to torpedo his appointment.

His outspoken opposition to Catalan separatism, and Spain's related refusal to recognize Kosovo as a state, could potentially hinder EU diplomacy in the Balkans, though he said in a recent interview that EU officials must act in the common, rather than national, interest.

He is also a man of strong character, who sometimes loses his temper: In a much-tweeted TV interview with Deutsche Welle, for example, he was so irritated by questions on Catalonia that he walked off the set.

“Some say he’s not too diplomatic. That could be a strength as well as a weakness,” said European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, who was vice president of the European Parliament under Borrell.

“He has the heterodoxy of the untamed,” said José Antonio Zarzalejos, who was editor of El Correo and ABC in Borrell's national political heyday in the late 1990s. “He was a politician with great intellectual capacity … who had personal opinions and could defy the most canonical ones within the Socialist Party.”

* * *

The son of a baker from a village of 3,000 people in the Pyrenees, Borrell studied engineering and economics, earned a Ph.D. and won scholarships for post-graduate studies in France and the U.S.

His humble origins contrast with the political pedigrees of his fellow nominees for top jobs in Brussels: Von der Leyen is the daughter of a senior EU official who was president of the German state of Lower Saxony; Michel's father was Belgium's foreign minister and a European commissioner.

But Borrell is cosmopolitan and connected: He speaks English, French and Italian, as well as Catalan and Spanish; He met his first wife Carolina Mayeur — with whom he has two children — in Kibbutz Gal On in Israel, where he spent a summer in his 20s; and his second wife, Cristina Narbona, is vice president of Spain's Senate and a former Socialist minister.

As president of the European Parliament during enlargement into Eastern Europe, he was credited with giving the role increased visibility

Borrell entered government in 1982, when the Socialists won power under Felipe González. During their uninterrupted rule until 1996, he was successively secretary of state for budget, for treasury and minister of infrastructure.

After the Socialists lost power to the conservatives and Joaquín Almunia took over as party leader, Borrell launched a challenge in a primary in 1998. “Papá [González] has gone; we must learn to walk alone,” he said at the time, relishing his pedagogical approach to politics. “What motivates me is understanding and explaining. I have the soul of a teacher,” Borrell told POLITICO.

González and top party cadres sided with Almunia, but Borrell secured the support of the rank-and-file to become the Socialist candidate for prime minister. Zarzalejos argued that Borrell's popular appeal was due to his "authenticity," saying: “People trust him ... He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t believe in."

Authenticity alone wasn't enough, however: Borrell had to resign as a candidate following revelations that two of his former subordinates in the Treasury had taken millions of euros in bribes from firms seeking favorable tax inspections. He wasn’t personally implicated, but said he didn’t want to harm the party.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaks next to VP Carmen Calvo and Josep Borrell | Javier Lizon/EFE via EPA

Years later, the memory of this battle with the Socialist establishment was revived when Pedro Sánchez was ousted from the party leadership in 2016. When Sánchez attempted to come back to power the following year, the only Socialist heavyweight to support him was Borrell.

“He was a person I had barely known [beforehand], but he defended me … and I know he did it for political convictions, not for personal reasons,” Sánchez recalls in his autobiography, "Manual de Resistencia," published earlier this year.

“He had gone through something very similar 20 years earlier," Sánchez wrote, speaking of their "parallel trajectories."

* * *

Foiled on the domestic scene, Borrell turned his attention to Europe. He presided over the European affairs committee of the Spanish parliament, took part in the Convention that drafted the Constitution for Europe, served as president of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007, and remained an MEP until 2009.

As a member of the Convention, Borrell advocated, without success, for a reference in the text to a “federal model,” pushed for an explicit reference to equality between women and men to be in the draft and gave proof of his militant laicism opposing any reference to Europe's Christian heritage.

“Let’s leave God out of this,” he wrote. “God is a recent convert."

Borrell's federalist leanings make him a target for Euroskeptics: An article on U.K. website BrexitCentral said: “The federalist ambitions of the EU’s likely foreign policy supremo should make us even more relieved we’re leaving.”

As president of the European Parliament during enlargement into Eastern Europe, he was credited with giving the role increased visibility and making full use of his right to address EU leaders during summits.

Spain's stock market regulator sanctioned Borrell over a sale of Abengoa stocks that belonged to his ex-wife while he was a board member.

“A member of the Council told me there’s no head of state or government who didn’t listen very attentively when Josep Borrell took the floor,” Martin Schulz, then head of the Socialist group in the Parliament, told MEPs after Borrell’s final speech as president in 2007.

Monica Frassoni, the current co-chair of the European Green Party, who was an MEP at the time, said Borrell tried — “and didn't always succeed” — to slash red tape hampering the chamber’s work. She recalls some heated exchanges between Borrell and "strong personalities" such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Franco-German MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The job also expanded his contacts book: The vice presidents of the Parliament at the time included António Costa, now prime minister of Portugal, and Moscovici. “You know them and they know you. Since we all lead such busy lives, we don't relate to each other except when there's a storm," Borrell said.

Back on the benches as a regular MEP, he again showed his independent streak by defying the Spanish Socialist whip and voting against a 2008 directive that he felt didn't protect the rights of migrants.

Borrell at a party rally in Madrid | Juanjo Martín/EFE via EPE

On leaving the Parliament, he joined the board of energy company Abengoa and in 2010 was appointed president of the European University Institute based in Florence. But he quit the institute two years later amid controversy over an alleged conflict of interests between two posts.

It wasn’t the only controversy to stem from his job at Abengoa: Last year, Spain's stock market regulator (CNMV) sanctioned Borrell over a sale of €9,030 in stocks of Abengoa that belonged to his ex-wife. The sale took place in November 2015 — the same month the company started insolvency proceedings that sent its shares plummeting.

Borrell acknowledged in Congress that the sale had been “a mistake,” but insisted that he didn’t benefit personally from his position in the firm, because he had a much bigger stock portfolio that he didn’t sell.

When Sánchez tapped him for the role of foreign minister in the summer of 2018, Borrell had gone back to Spain to teach at university. By May this year he was heading the Spanish Socialists' list for the European Parliament, emerging as the winner with 33 percent of the vote — four points higher than the Socialists' result in a general election a month earlier.

* * *

Borrell's political resurrection was not only down to his support for Sánchez. He had already taken up the anti-independence cause in Catalonia, attempting to debunk the secessionists' arguments in a book, arguing in the media and academia, and debating against then vice president of Catalonia, Oriol Junqueras, on TV.


He blended intellectual arguments about why independence would be bad for Catalonia with verbal fisticuffs, accusing an opponent lawmaker in one memorable debate of spouting "sawdust and manure."

As a Catalan and a leftist whose father was jailed by dictator Francisco Franco, and who joined the Socialist Party during the democratic transition, he has been a stone in the shoe of independence supporters who try to portray their unionist opponents in general as right-wing Spanish nationalists, and Borrell in particular as a “reactionary,” “provocateur" and “Francoist.”

“He breaks the coherence of the pro-independence narrative,” said journalist Zarzalejos.

Borrell at the Spanish national day military parade | Juanjo Martín/|EFE via EPA

As foreign minister, he ordered Spanish diplomats to respond to separatists in foreign media and forums, breaking with the previous conservative administration’s low-key approach; he created an agency within his ministry — called Global Spain — charged with promoting Spain's reputation abroad; and he filed a lawsuit against the Catalan autonomous government's expansion of its overseas delegations.

In media interviews, he has hammered home the message that, as a Catalan opposed to secession, he’s no exception because pro-independence parties have never overcome the 50 percent threshold in an election.

As result of these efforts, in his home village La Pobla de Segur — where three-quarters of the electorate voted for secessionist parties in the last election — the town hall passed a vote to hold a referendum to remove a street name dedicated to Borrell last year. (The vote hasn’t taken place yet.)

Since his nomination as high representative, the Catalan government has inundated MEPs and EU governments with letters accusing Borrell of using espionage to monitor Catalonia’s overseas missions.


“What we do is simply to inform about the political positions of Borrell as foreign minister,” said Alfred Bosch, the Catalan region’s foreign councilor. “His political attitudes in general must raise doubts about his suitability as diplomat-in-chief of the whole of Europe.”

Borrell has mixed tough talk on the Catalan independence movement, for example labelling their reports of police brutality during the 2017 referendum as "fake news," with more moderate tones than the Spanish right.

When hundreds of thousands of Catalan unionists demonstrated against independence in Barcelona in October 2017, and part of the crowd demanded that then Catalan President Carles Puigdemont be jailed, Borrell told them off from the podium. “Don’t shout like the mob in the Roman circus,” he said. “Only the judge can say who goes to prison.”


Borrell has argued that Catalonia is a nation — a no-go for Spain’s right-of-center political parties and some Socialists too — and that the Catalan leaders who have been jailed over the October 2017 secession push should be freed pending trial. “I’m as little Catalan nationalist as Spanish nationalist, although I feel both [Catalan and Spanish],” is how Borrell put it in his 2017 book, the "Ides of October."


The high representative leads a European diplomatic corps (the EEAS) with over 4,000 officials and 143 delegations around the world, chairs the Foreign Affairs Council, takes part in European Council meetings when foreign affairs are discussed, and is one of the vice presidents of the European Commission, charged with coordinating everything related to external action.

Borrell has Sánchez's backing to try to make the job bigger and more assertive, though that is conditioned by Sánchez's struggle to secure congressional backing to confirm him as prime minister.

“Everything related to humanitarian aid and resources, aid and development policies towards Africa will be added to all the competencies that the high representative already has,” Sánchez told reporters after the European Council that included Borrell among the nominees for the EU’s top jobs.

Elaborating on Spain's vision for the job, a senior Spanish official said: "The high representative shouldn’t simply be a sort of macro ambassador, an exclusively diplomatic figure who goes around the world hugging and having conversations with people. It needs to become a truly executive figure."

Borrell has made clear his own frustration with the way EU foreign policy works, and the need for the bloc to be more assertive.

Elcano, a think tank partly funded by the Spanish government, has recommended that the EU’s foreign policy chief take on a bigger coordinating role backed by more competencies inside the Commission, while the Bruegel think tank has argued for powers such as a veto on competition decisions on security grounds.

“Neither China nor the United States now separates economics from geopolitics,” said Bruegel. The EU “must learn to think as a geopolitical power, define its goals and act strategically."

Despite his protestations that the job is not yet a done deal, Borrell is clearly already thinking about how he can do it, including the scope for reducing the travel schedule by the use of technology and delegation. “My experience as a minister is that I spend too little time in my office giving instructions, evaluating actions, thinking, directing,” Borrell told POLITICO. “Is that inevitable? I frankly don’t know.”

Borrell during an interview in Nairobi, Kenya | Dai Kurokawa/EFE via EPA

EU insiders say Mogherini focused a lot on the diplomacy, traveling constantly to meetings and summits. "Maybe Borrell will be doing that a bit less, concentrating on management and strategy a bit more,” said Commissioner Moscovici.

“This job is not easy because you are one foot in the Commission, one foot in the Council. You express the voice of the Union but foreign affairs ministers are quite jealous of your prerogatives, so it’s useful to spend a lot of time with them and I think that Borrell's experience means that he can do that,” Moscovici added.

Borrell has made clear his own frustration with the way EU foreign policy works, and the need for the bloc to be more assertive in the face of unprecedented “animosity” from the U.S., the rise of a “colossal” rival in China and the resurgence of the Russian “threat” to the east, in his words. “The only way to survive in this world of giants is to unite to be strong together,” he said at a public event in Spain early in July.

“The Foreign Affairs Council is more a valley of tears than a center of decision-making,” he told the European Council on Foreign Relations in May. “They tell us their sufferings, we express our condolence and concern ... but no capacity for action comes out of it and we just move on to the next one.”

Von der Leyen, in her first speech to the European Parliament, said: “Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world.” She urged reforms that would let foreign policy decisions be taken by qualified majority rather than the present requirement for unanimity.

Borrell himself has said unanimity is the source of deadlock, though he admits it would be hard to change precisely because amending it would require unanimity. He has also warned that the EU should take reform seriously — or risk its own disappearance.

“The idea that Europe could disappear as a political project because it is unable to respond to the problems of its citizens began to take shape recently,” he told the ECFR. “Indeed, disintegration has already begun to some degree. Brexit is a step backward by one country at least ... and not one of the small or minor ones.”