Josep Borrell: “The international system, that we were accustomed to after the Cold War, no longer exists”

11:54 07.05.2024 •

Borrell in Oxford

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission has made confessions in the speech at Oxford University about the world confronted by wars. The confessions are worth quoting in detail, since the diplomat touched on very important aspects of today's world politics. He gave a fairly objective assessment of the current international situation – a rare case when a Western leader is aware of what is happening and speaks about it honestly:

Yes, I am the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. From this privileged position, I have the great opportunity of looking at the world. And what do I see?

Well, I see more confrontation and less cooperation. This has been a growing trend in the last years: much more confrontation and much less cooperation. 

I see a world much more fragmented. I see a world where rules are not being adhered to.

I see more polarity, and less multilateralism.

I see how dependencies become weapons.

I see [that] the international system, that we were accustomed to after the Cold War, no longer exists. America has lost its status of a hegemon. And the post-1945 multilateral [world] order is losing ground.

I see – as you know – China rising to the super-power status. What China has done in the last 40 years is unique in the history of humankind. In the last 30 years, China’s share of the world’s GDP, at PPP, has gone from 6% to almost 20%, while we, Europeans, went from 21% to 14% and the United States from 20% to 15%. This is a dramatic change of the economic landscape.

China is becoming a rival for us and for the United States. Not just in manufacturing cheap goods, but also as a military power, at the forefront of the technological development and building the technologies that will shape our future. China has embarked on a “friendship without limits” – although all friendships have limits - with Russia, which signals a growing alignment of the authoritarian regimes in front of democracies.

I said the world is much more multipolar – Yes, that is true.

[At the same time] middle powers, [such as] India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye, are emerging. They are becoming important actors. Whether they are BRICS or not BRICS, they have very few common features, except the desire for getting more status and a stronger voice in the world, as well as greater benefits for their own development.

In order to achieve this, they are maximising their autonomy, not willing to take sides, hedging one side or the other depending on the moment, depending on the question. They do not want to choose camps and we should not push them to choose camps.

We, Europeans, wanted to create in our neighbourhood a ring of friends. Instead of that, what we have today is a ring of fire. A ring of fire coming from the Sahel to the Middle East, the Caucasus and now in the battlefields of Ukraine.

And there are two wars. Two wars. When I came to Brussels, there were no wars.

There are two wars where people are fighting for the land. This shows that geography is back. We were told that globalisation had made geography irrelevant, but no. Most of the conflicts in our neighbourhood are related to land, they are territorial. A land that has been promised to two people, in the case of Palestine, and a land at the crossroads of two worlds, in the case of Ukraine. “This is my land”, “No, it is mine”. And this fight for land is shedding a lot of blood.

Jean Monnet already said: “Europe will be forged in crisis”. But now the urgency, and the gravity of the moment is such that we hear warnings that Europe could die, nothing less.

L’Europe peut mourir, nous venons d’entendre.

Well, okay. What do we need to do?

First, we need a clear assessment of the dangers of Russia – Russia [is] considered as the most existential threat to Europe... It is important to re-read what Putin said in 2007 at the Munich [Security] Conference that I am afraid that nobody wanted to hear or to understand.

And then, another war came. The horrible [terrorist] attack by Hamas of 7 October and Israel’s response – for many people, the disproportionate response - plunged the Middle East into the worst cycle of violence in decades. Just before the 7th of October, many believed that the Abraham Accords had diluted the Palestinian issue. Well, they had not. It was a way of making peace between the Arabs and Israelis, but not between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Jack Sullivan considered that the Middle East had never been so calm, he said one week before the 7th of October. Well, it was not calm. It was not calm, just have a look at what happened in the West Bank to realise that it was not calm at all.

Now, we have two wars. And we, Europeans, are not prepared for the harshness of the world.

The moment is a moment of gravity and urgency because we are facing a mix of geopolitical, economic and societal threats. Four of them: geopolitically, economically, technologically, and democratically.

I think that we have to work on three dimensions: Principles, Cooperation and Strength. Principles are important because we say that the European Union is a Union of values. That is what is being said in our treaties. We are a Union of values, and those values are enumerated in the Treaties. They are everything that is good, it is difficult to disagree with these principles.

But in a world where dependencies are increasingly weaponised, trust is in short supply. This brings the risk of decoupling with large parts of the world. Decoupling on technology, decoupling on trade, decoupling on values. 

There are more and more transactional relationships, but less rules and less cooperation. But the great challenges of the world – climate change, technologies, demographic change, inequalities - require more cooperation, not less cooperation.

So, what can we do? 

First, certainly, to reduce excessive dependencies. During the pandemic, we realised that in Europe, we were not producing a single gram of Paracetamol. Not a gram of Paracetamol. It was a moment of crisis, and in the moment of crisis, the market was not able to provide what we needed. So, we need to reduce excessive dependencies, for sure.   

We need to diversify our trade links and deepen cooperation with our close friends. The United Kingdom is a close friend and a close partner.

But that is not enough. If I was only talking with people who share the same values, I would stop working at midday. No, there are many people around the world [with] whom I do not share the same values or have contradictory interests. In spite of that, I have to look for ways of cooperating. This is the case of China. We need to work and cooperate with people who [do] not necessarily share the same values or interests. 

We have to increase our defence capabilities and to build a strong European pillar inside NATO. 

In the past, when we talked about the European pillar inside NATO, this was portrayed as a step towards weakening NATO, or leaving NATO, or forgetting about NATO. But the funny thing is [that] today, it is the United States themselves who are encouraging us to forge ahead, to increase our capacities, and to do that in a coordinated manner.

I think that the European Pillar of NATO has to be understood not from the point of view of the European Union alone, but from the geographical approach of Europe as a space which is bigger than the European Union. Not only from an institutional point of view – the 27 [Member States] – but from the point of view of the people who share what it is to be “European”. 

The Ukrainian existence depends on us. I know how to finish the war in Ukraine. I can finish the war in Ukraine in a couple of weeks just by cutting the supply. If I cut the supply of arms to Ukraine, Ukraine cannot resist, they will have to surrender, and the war will finish.  

But is this the way we want the war to finish? I do not want [that], and I hope that many people in Europe do not want [that] either.


…Borrell sounds nervous. He is afraid of the future. He sees big problems in Europe. That’s why he speaks so openly about what’s happening. He even sees a way out of the tragic situation – to stop military assistance for Ukraine: “I can finish the war in Ukraine in a couple of weeks just by cutting the supply.” He does not want it. But he understands that the circumstances could be stronger than desires.


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