The position of the High Representative on the Ukrainian crisis

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell visits a checkpoint in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk Region, Ukraine [Maksim Levin/Reuters]
by Francesca Bodini

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24th has pushed the EU to adopt unparalleled security and defence measures, thus shaping the EU’s foreign activities in a broader sense. In this context, a key player is the High Representative Josep Borrell, whose stance has been clear in his position since the beginning of the conflict, President Putin needs to stop this senseless aggression.

What is the role of the High Representative?

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is the EU’s representative in charge of the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP), including its common security and defence strategy. In addition, he is also the Vice-President of the European Commission, as established by the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) and expanded in the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). The High Representative ensures that the EU’s foreign policy is consistent and, within the Commission, oversees the coordination of different aspects of the EU’s external activities. In this area, the European External Action Service (EEAS) – the EU’s diplomatic service made up of ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states – and the Political and Security Committee (PSC) assist the High Representative in carrying out their job. Concretely, the High Representative plays a critical role in establishing and monitoring the EU’s crisis response, which is why the figure of Josep Borrell – current High Representative appointed in 2019 – is so important in these particular circumstances.

The situation was already tense before February 24

Since last January, the High Representative Borrell started acting in the situation between Russia and Ukraine, first by travelling to Ukraine and engaging in discussions with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal but also by calling on Russia to de-escalate and withdraw its forces. In view of Russia’s military build-up along its border with Ukraine, he emphasized that the European Union is Ukraine’s most trusted ally and that the EU would give full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On this occasion, Borrell also commended the work of International Organisations and NGOs working on the ground as well as the Ukrainian Government itself. Moreover, he stressed the EU’s intense coordination with the US and NATO since there is no security in Europe without security in Ukraine.

First reactions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

On February 24, Josep Borrell defined the aggression perpetrated by Russia as “amongst the darkest hours for Europe since World War II”. On the same occasion, Borrell defined the events brought upon by Russian President Putin as a “great violation of international law and of basic principles of human co-existence that is costing many lives”. As High Representative in charge, Borrell has been in touch with European partners around the world to ensure that the international community is updated on the events in order to pressure an ever-isolated Russia into ceasing the aggression.

Borrell used very strong words to condemn the attack and talked of a “matter of life and death” for the future of the global community. Again, NATO and the European Union were presented as the challengers of the use of violence as a means to obtain political gains. Moreover, Borrell assured urgent assistance to Ukraine as well as European support to evacuation operations, while continuing the “unprecedented efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the security crisis caused by Russia”.

EU’s challenges caused by the war in Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine is particularly challenging for the European Union for different reasons, the first of which is that the war is at its doorstep. Secondly, the conflict is expediting changes in EU foreign policy, as Brussels seeks to adapt to the new geopolitical circumstances. Emphasis on defence was already emerging among some European governments before, but the Russian invasion has turned what was only a remote aspiration into a real possibility.

The current scenario may encourage a trend in Europe toward a greater reliance on hard power, which numerous European politicians, like EU High Representative Josep Borrell and French President Emmanuel Macron, have long called for. While the European response to foreign policy-related issues is usually timid at best, on this occasion the European bloc has demonstrated to be swift in its response by approving the strongest sanctions in its history and sending direct bilateral military assistance to Kyiv.

On the same line of action, on March 21, the EU adopted the Strategic Compass regarding, amongst other things, military choices such as the construction of a 5,000-soldier “quick deployment capacity”. Various member states are participating in this project, rendering it a military innovation for the EU. The Strategic Compass’s major purpose is to be competent and ready to respond to security risks and challenges in an efficient and consistent manner. Other issues that have been brought up yet again by the conflict is the enlargement to the East, which seems ever more appealing to the European Union and its member states.

Energy security issues have also been brought up by Borrell, who has recognised the problem related to the EU’s dependence on Russian natural gas and the impact of the war on energy prices.

“The price increase in electricity, in oil, in gas, also in food, which is the consequence of the dependence of all of us, from the world economy integrated, of our mutual interdependence that is now becoming a weapon, because Russia is using it as a weapon.”

In these uncertain times, the European Union has been taking unprecedented steps to show its support to Ukraine and making clear to Russia that these kinds of attacks will not be tolerated any longer. Even though European member states can improve their response as a whole, the cooperation between them has been unparalleled. The High Representative Borrell has made his position clear on the matter and is expected to continue his work on this path.