The EU’s foreign and security policy and its security and defence policy are both works in progress still, and a bit of “work in regress” at the same time. The demands of Nominee Josep Borrell as High Representative will be high if the goals laid out in the Treaty on European Union are to be taken seriously. The job requires an architect and strategist, a manager with a strong executive arm, a gifted negotiator and an excellent communicator – a personality of rather exceptional abilities who is willing to accept the constraints on the job, to serve the interests of the 27/28 foreign ministers, to share external representation with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, and to take the blame when European aspirations stray from reality.

Among the requirements and qualifications needed for the job of High Representative, five criteria stand out, which will define the potential for success.  

What it takes to do the job?

Ambition, reputation, a strategic sense, operational skills, and resilience – these are the key strengths a High Representative needs.

  1. The world is ever more complex and moving fast. Therefore, any candidate should not just bring substantial foreign policy experience to the job, but also be passionate about managing international interdependence and global power relations, even after many years in the field. With passion should come the will and ability to communicate the foreign policy challenges facing the EU. For building and nurturing interest in foreign policy and consensus, also known as good public diplomacy, is too crucial to be neglected by the face of EU foreign policy.
  2. Reputation is key because it is built on previous interactions with international actors in government, business, and civil society at the highest levels. A High Representative will benefit greatly from an extensive network of personal contacts, and from respect and trust previously acquired. Ideally, the successful candidate will have been a foreign minister or prime minister of an active member state, who was engaged across a wider range of issues within and beyond the EU.
  3. Thirdly, a good HR will have to bring to the job a clear sense of strategic priorities. This implies a good reading of the current challenges to global order, a succinct understanding of the aggregated interests of the European Union (and the ways in which shared interests can be shaped), and a vision of what the EU’s combined potential could achieve. The HR also needs a good sense of where to engage the EU alongside or in support of member states, and vice versa, and the skills to build and manage coalitions within the EU. Priority areas of a strategic European foreign and security policy should be the European neighbourhood, the major actors in the global arena, and the principal fora of global governance. 
  4. Next to strategic competence, strong operational skills are indispensable. The External Action Service (EEAS) The next HR needs to be more convincing about the role and place of the External Action Service (EEAS) in order to reduce friction with national foreign ministries, attract high quality delegations of personnel, and to make the Foreign Affairs Council as the centre-stage of EU strategic reasoning. All this is a prerequisite to achieve the most important operational demand: the effective bundling of all external instruments and portfolios of the EU under the HR’s lead. A strong candidate will make his/her acceptance of the nomination dependent on such a clustering. To achieve this would certainly be more important than to secure the HR’s role in the protocol of the EU’s external representation.
  5. Finally, a strong High Representative will need resilience to cope with the oddities and indignities of acting as Europe’s foreign minister without being a foreign minister, from not having his own plane to acting on the basis of an often times fragile (and changeable) consensus among member states. And the HR needs to be able to manage the substantial egos in the Council and the EU institutions. Personal standing will frequently have to make up for lack of respect in the office. Finally, the High Representative must steadfastly resist Europe’s intrinsic affinity for naval-gazing. Our exposed and vulnerable continent cannot afford to ignore the world beyond its belly.

Once the new High Representative has been appointed, the debate will return to old patterns: some will praise the HR’s achievements given the impossible circumstances, others will lament the continued under-performance of Europe. And the High Representative and EEAS will muddle through.

Can Josep Borrell do the job?

A veteran of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Mr Borrell has courted controversy since his return to top tier national politics following the 2018 general election.

On Iran

Mr Borrell is a known supporter of Iran and has made several comments during his time as foreign minister, which were construed as being sympathetic to the regime. Mr Borrell has said Tehran played an “essential role” in the war in Syria, while the US withdrew from the conflict. Mr Borrell has spoken out against US sanctions on Iran, saying he rejected "any kind of position that resembles an ultimatum from anyone and also from the United States”.

On Israel

Mr. Borrell has been very critical of Israel.


Mr Borrell’s diplomatic relations with the US have been strained by his public criticisms of President Donald Trump. Most recently, Josep Borell has accused the the US Administration of behaving like “a cowboy” in Venezuela. He has also criticized the U.S. government’s adoption of extra-territorial measures against Cuba and described them as “an abuse of power."

On Russia

Borell has referred to Russia as an old enemy that has returned as a threat. He has declared that Putin isn’t the Soviet Union, Putin is the revival of Imperial Russia. It’s not a new Cold War; it’s a classic power base aiming to assert itself in territories it believes belonged to it and which it wants to recover. It’s not an intractable enemy – it may have nuclear arms, but its GDP is the same as Italy’s and it has many intrinsic economic and sociological weaknesses. It is an awkward neighbor. Moscow will find it hard to work with Josep Borrell.

Finally Mr. Borrell has been plagued by scandal throughout his career. In the late 1990s he stepped down as leader of PSOE over a financial scandal involving two of his former co-workers when he was deputy finance minister. His most recent public financial scandal was in 2015 when he stepped down from the board of renewable energy group Abengoa shortly before the business announced it was about to go bankrupt. Last year, he was fined 30,000 euros for insider trading after selling shares in the group.

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