EU hardens towards Russia after ill-fated diplomatic trip

Irish MEPs among signatories of letter asking Josep Borrell to resign over ‘humiliation’

The European Union's top diplomat has warned Russia is on a "worrisome authoritarian route" and that the bloc will consider fresh sanctions in a hardening of rhetoric towards Moscow after a diplomatic trip went sour.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Moscow that new sanctions are on the table over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, in an address to the European Parliament on Tuesday as he faced calls to step down for failing to sufficiently stand up to Russia.

"The Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route . . . there seems to be almost no room for development of democratic alternatives," Mr Borrell told MEPs."The Russian authorities have shown in the Navalny case that they are merciless in stifling any such attempts."

It’s now up to the governments of EU member states to collectively decide how to respond, and this may include sanctions, Mr Borrell said, telling MEPs he would propose “concrete” measures including action to counter disinformation, cyber attacks and other “hybrid challenges”.

‘Existential threat’

"The visit confirmed the long-running trend whereby Russia is disconnecting from Europe. they are disconnected because they consider our liberal democratic system as an existential threat for them," he added. "Russia has been trying to divide us, they seek to divide us."

The Spanish commissioner spoke as he faced calls to resign for walking into what some MEPs described as a deliberate “humiliation” of the EU in a diplomatic trip to Moscow late last week.

Some 81 MEPs have signed a letter to Mr Borrell's boss, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, calling on the diplomatic chief to lose his job over the visit, during which he held a joint press conference with Russia's Sergei Lavrov in which the foreign minister criticised the EU.

The letter criticised Mr Borrell for “misjudgment” in going ahead with the trip, which was opposed by some member states, and accused him of causing “severe damage to the reputation of the EU”.

Sputnik vaccine

During the trip, the Russian government expelled diplomats, from Germany, Poland and Sweden, something Mr Borrell only learned of through social media. His praise for Russia's Covid-19 Sputnik vaccine, which has not yet been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency, as "good news for the whole of mankind" was also seen as a boon to Moscow.

Fine Gael MEP Maria Walsh, one of two Irish representatives along with Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher to sign the letter calling on Mr Borrell to be sacked or step down, said the diplomatic chief should have had "more sense".

“Should he even have gone there? Potentially not. And he should have had the clear mandate of calling out the arrest of Navalny and pushing EU values. That simply didn’t happen,” Ms Walsh said. “While the call for resignation is quite harsh, I think this letter and the number of signatories on it shows how serious it is.”

The calls for Mr Borrell’s resignation come with the administration of Dr von der Leyen already under pressure over the hastily reversed use of article 16 in the Northern Ireland protocol to the post-Brexit settlement last month.