Migration could be “a dissolving force for the European Union” due to deep cultural differences between European countries and their long-term inability to reach a common policy, the EU’s most senior diplomat has said.
Although Russia will try to fan the flames on migration inside Europe, Josep Borrell denied that the conflict in Ukraine was contributing to the crisis, which he described as a decades-old problem fuelled by wars and poverty in departure countries.
The EU’s external affairs commissioner said the bloc had performed miracles in the war, and that it was one of the key forces forging a new world order in which the global south deserved greater respect and power.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian reflecting on how the EU had been changed by the war and where the bloc fits in this new world order, he said European countries had been forced to wake from a siesta on defence spending, in which they had lived under the American nuclear umbrella.
He called for greater defence cooperation and quicker decisions on the supply of weapons to Ukraine and defended the faltering counteroffensive, saying the country was one-third mined and it would have been suicidal for Ukraine to have mounted a full-frontal counterattack.
At a subsequent lecture at the New York University Law School, he said the UN security council had been proved “completely useless in recent years due to its divisions” and called for an overhaul of political and financial institutions to revive a multilateralism that “is outdated and running out of steam”.
In recent days Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who came to power on the back of controversial rhetoric about the rise of migration, said she would not allow her country to become “Europe’s refugee camp” after 11,000 people arrived on the island of Lampedusa in a matter of days.
Borrell said nationalism was on the rise in Europe but this was more about migration than Euroscepticism. “Brexit actually was feared to be an epidemic. And it has not been,” he said. “It has been a vaccine. No one wants to follow the British leaving the European Union.
“Migration is a bigger divide for the European Union. And it could be a dissolving force for the European Union.” Despite establishing a shared common external border, “we have not been able until now to agree on a common migration policy”, he said.
He attributed this to deep cultural and political differences inside the EU: “There are some members of the European Union that are Japanese-style – we don’t want to mix. We don’t want migrants. We don’t want to accept people from outside. We want our purity.”
He said other countries, such as Spain, have a long history of accepting migrants. “The paradox is that Europe needs migrants because we have so low demographic growth. If we want to survive from a labour point of view, we need migrants.”
Borrell insisted in the interview that the war in Ukraine was not fuelling the current rows over migration. “The issue is that migration pressure has been increasing, mainly due to wars – not the war against Ukraine … It is the Syrian war, the Libyan war, the military coups in Sahel.
“We are living in a circle of instability from Gibraltar to the Caucasus and this happened before the Ukrainian war and will continue after the Ukrainian war. Migration in Africa is not being caused by the war against Ukraine. The root causes of migration in Africa are lack of development, economic growth and bad governance.”
He said European efforts to cooperate with some African countries had been made more difficult by the existence of military regimes. He described the Wagner group, the Russian mercenary outfit, as “the praetorian guard of the African dictators”.
Asked if he believed Russia would try to fan the flames of migration, Borrell said “Putin will try everything”. He added: “Putin believes that democracies are weak, fragile, they get tired and time is running on his side, because sooner or later we will get exhausted.
“And this is a political battle as much as a military battle. It has to be explained with arguments. Certainly, nobody likes to pay more for the electricity bills. I believe in democracy as a pedagogical exercise, and I believe that people understand the reasons.”
But he also acknowledged the harsh choices Europe faced in curbing migration by reaching deals with countries such as Tunisia, pointing out it was his duty to defend not just European values but at the same time European interests. “The life of the diplomat is full of uncomfortable choices … Foreign policy is working for the values and the interests of the European Union. And these require, in some cases, difficult choices trying all the time to respect international law and human rights.”
Ukraine and the EU
Increasingly a target for personal criticism by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Borrell was at the heart of the decision to persuade EU states to supply arms to Kyiv as Russian troops crossed the border – indeed he says it is the proudest moment of his career.
The former Spanish foreign minister cuts an unusual figure, since he seems as much a geopolitical commentator as a practitioner. He insists the public mood in Europe is not fracturing on Ukraine.
Asked if the disputes between some eastern European countries and Ukraine over grain exports are a harbinger of the conflicts that might arise if the country joins the EU, he said: “Everybody knows, it’s going to be difficult, because Ukraine, first of all, is at war and is being destroyed, literally. Second, it had to do a lot of reforms even before the war. And third, at this moment, Ukraine being a member of the European Union, it would be the only country that would be a net beneficiary.”
As a result, Ukraine and the EU will need to undertake a long reform process, including in his mind greater use of majority voting.
Either way, Borrell said, Ukraine’s membership meant the end of what he described as a “sleeping siesta” about EU enlargement. “For years and years there has been a kind of stalemate and nothing happened. Ukraine has created a new dynamic.
“We are herbivores in a world of carnivores. It is a power politics world, yet we still have in mind that through trade and preaching the rule of law we can have influence on the world. We must still preach the rule of law but we have to be aware there are some leaders that need to be dealt with in a different way.”
He said the EU was still a long way from having the defence capacity it needed. “I am not Donald Trump saying you have to spend 2% of GDP on defence, but it is in our hands to build a common foreign and defence policy.”
The war, he said, “had required a live exercise working out the capacities Europe has, what it can provide, what Ukraine can use, where there are duplications, where there are the loopholes”.
Borrell said the EU had achieved miracles and acted at the speed of light in comparison with the past. But he added: “Some decisions have been discussed for quite a long time. Do we have to provide tanks? This has been a long discussion, and at the end, we provide tanks. Do we have to provide Patriot anti-aircraft missiles? There has been a long discussion and at the end we did it. Do we have to provide air force capacities? This was discussed just at the beginning of the war. Now we are training pilots for the F 16. Certainly, a war is a war, and if you want to supply arms to someone who is at war and is receiving heavy attacks, the quicker the better.”
Though he thinks quicker decisions might have saved lives, he pointed out that the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive had been slowed by problems beyond arms supplies. “Russia has built a long string of fortifications,” he said. “In some cases 25km deep, or wide. And it’s clear that you cannot launch a frontal attack against that, it would be suicide. They have been mining the whole land.”
A new world order?
Borrell predicted the war in Ukraine, and the eventual outcome, would be one of the three driving forces creating a new world order, alongside competition between China and the US, and the rise of the global south.
He admitted he was no fan of the term “global south” to describe such a heterogeneous group of people but that an entity existed that “consider themselves part of an alternative to the western models”. He said it was critical to “try to avoid the alliance of China plus Russia, plus parts of the global south.
“The people of the global south want to be recognised because 40, 50 years ago, when the world order was built, some of these countries did not exist. Either they were colonies or so poor they did not have a vote.
“So now they are independent countries and they have been growing economically, demographically, and they want to have a say.”
He added: “Understandably these countries are hedging. One day they look at Russia , another at China. At the UN they vote against the war in Ukraine but many of them do not have this feeling of moral indignation that we have.”
“There is no clear hegemon in the world but instead a growing number of actors.” The paradox, he said, was that this growth in actors had not been accompanied by a stronger multilateralism.
“We have multi-polarity without multilateralism. I am an engineer by training and I know when there are more poles in the game you need more rules in the game. But we have more poles and less rules and that is why the world is so unstable, because the powers are confronting one another, and either they create blockages or a landslide.
“Look at all these countries, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, India – you cannot ignore this new reality. In 20 years, at the current trend, there will be three big countries in the world, China, India and the US. Each of these powers will be a $50tn economy, and the EU will be much less, about $30tn.
“For Europe this represents a huge long-term challenge. Europeans have to be prepared to be part of the new world in which we will be a smaller part of the population, certainly, and also in proportion to the size of the world economy. It means that we have to look for political influence, technological capacity and unity. Unity is the key word. Europeans have to be more united.”