European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell © Virginia Mayo/Pool/Reuters

The EU’s neighbourhood is “in flames” with crises from Belarus to the eastern Mediterranean that demand an urgent united response from member states, the bloc’s foreign policy chief has warned.

Josep Borrell also said the Balkans were a “powder keg” that the EU had to help defuse to improve regional security and meet its ambition to be a credible world foreign policy force.

“In the last 10 months, our neighbourhood has become engulfed in flames, from Libya to Belarus,” Mr Borrell said in an interview with the Financial Times. “Everything has got much worse than I could have expected.”

His comments come as EU countries spar over efforts to impose sanctions over the post-election crackdown in Belarus by Alexander Lukashenko and Turkey’s attempts to seize potentially gas-rich eastern Mediterranean waters. EU leaders will also hold a video summit with China’s President Xi Jinping on Monday that is likely to underscore the tension in the bloc’s push to win economic concessions from Beijing while condemning its clampdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Mr Borrell said EU foreign ministers on September 21 were expected to agree on sanctions on Belarusian officials for the rigging of last month’s presidential election and the ensuing crackdown on political opponents. Mr Lukashenko’s inclusion in the draft list of about 40 names was something “to be debated”, he added. The bloc had 170 people including Mr Lukashenko on a Belarus sanction list until 2016.

Cyprus is holding the list up to secure a quid pro quo of sanctions on Turkey, some EU diplomats say. A Cypriot official denied the country was blocking the move, saying it lacked the bureaucratic capacity to study the recommendations quickly.

Mr Borrell said EU action on Turkey would be discussed by leaders at a Brussels summit starting on September 24 following the deployment of warships by Turkey and France in the eastern Mediterranean. 

“The tensions in the eastern Mediterranean between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been increasing exponentially, and there is a strong risk of a confrontation that goes further than just words,” said Mr Borrell, a 73-year-old former Spanish foreign minister who began his five-year EU posting in December.

The Socialist party veteran said the EU faced a big test in its resolution of disputes in the Balkans, including the wrangle between Serbia and its breakaway former province of Kosovo. 

“If we don't stabilise the Balkans, it’s going to be very difficult to be considered a geopolitical power. Because nobody else will do it — only the Europeans.”

On Russia, Mr Borrell suggested the EU should respond with sanctions over the novichok nerve agent poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny if there was “clear evidence” that specific officials were involved. 

The EU chief said the case would then be “equivalent” to the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018. That led to EU sanctions against four military intelligence officials, including the agency’s head and deputy head. 

Mr Borrell said that it was “up to the Germans” — who identified the use of novichok — to decide whether to retaliate over the Navalny case by stopping the Nord Stream 2 project to pipe Russian gas to the country. “Nord Stream 2 is not a European project. I have to say that the commission has never shown a strong enthusiasm for Nord Stream 2,” he said.

Mr Borrell bemoaned a “lack of urgency” in EU foreign policymaking and was candid about the limitations of his role, not least the need for unanimous decision-making by member states. He likened EU foreign policymaking to the early days of monetary union before the euro, when a virtual common currency coexisted alongside national currencies.

It was “still a work in progress, and it will still be a work in progress for a long time because we don’t share the same view of the world”, he said.

Mr Borrell said there was a “growing awareness” in Europe about the need for a “more realistic approach to China”, especially after its crackdown in Hong Kong.

“The relationship with China is more difficult today than after the decision they took in Hong Kong,” he said. “It has consequences. And our relations will be difficult until we reach a level playing field and the principle of reciprocity [on market access].”

Ms Merkel had intended to use Germany’s six-month EU presidency to broker an agreement on investment between EU and China at a summit in Leipzig this month after years of foot-dragging by Beijing, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely. Mr Borrell said the Chinese had been “very reluctant to advance” but he had recently detected a “more pro-agreement” mood in Beijing. 

Too much attention had been devoted to Brussels’ categorisation of China as a “systemic rival”, Mr Borrell lamented: “It doesn't mean that you have to be in a permanent and systemic rivalry,” insisting on the need for co-operation on climate change and the pandemic. International relations were no longer linear, but had “multiple faces”. This applied to Europe’s relationship with the US too, he added.

Even if Joe Biden won the presidential election, Washington’s policy towards China was set on a “more confrontational approach”, Mr Borrell said. Europe had to chart its own way “to avoid being squeezed” between the two superpowers.

“From the point of view of economic interest, we are not always on the same side,” he said. “And I think that we have clearly to defend our interest in front of the two big powers that will mark the 21st century through their confrontation.”

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