Home Europe 5 lessons from the world’s most gaffe-prone diplomat: Josep Borrell

5 lessons from the world’s most gaffe-prone diplomat: Josep Borrell

by editor

Meet the EU’s high representative for blunders and gaffes.

In his nearly four years as the European Commission’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell has left a trail of diplomatic chaos in his wake, with mistakes in Moscow, bloopers in Brussels and trip-ups on Twitter.

With Borrell likely to exit stage left after next year’s European elections, we’ve compiled a handy guide for whoever succeeds him as the EU’s top diplomat. Honorable mentions go to his lambasting of EU envoys for being “too slow” in reporting back to Brussels and for congratulating Ecuador for holding “peaceful” presidential elections despite one of the candidates being assassinated.

His litany of misadventures offers helpful lessons to all aspiring diplomats. Let us begin …  

Don’t stand by while hostile powers mock the EU

If you’re meeting with the Kremlin’s belligerent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, be prepared to give as good as you get. Definitely don’t stand around gormlessly as Moscow’s man ridicules the European Union. 

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Borrell did in February 2021 on a trip to Russia one year before the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In a disastrous performance, Borrell slow-wittedly failed to respond as Lavrov lambasted the EU as an “unreliable partner,” laughed off the West’s conclusions about Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, and followed up by booting EU diplomats out of the country. 

In Borrell’s defense, he wasn’t the only EU big beast to get trampled on in Moscow in recent years. Cough, Emmanuel, cough. 

Borrell and Lavrov in February 2021 | Russian government via EPA

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Don’t reveal secret fighter jet plans 

Always stay on script and never reveal confidential, highly sensitive information to the world’s press. (Unless, of course, you’re talking to POLITICO.)

Borrell, unfortunately, couldn’t even heed what seems like a simple piece of diplomatic received wisdom. 

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Borrell boldly declared that the EU would supply Kyiv with fighter jets, adding that some EU countries had the “kinds of planes” that Ukraine needed to fend off Russian aggression. 

EU diplomats and officials were outraged that Borrell had publicly announced the plan, which had been discussed behind closed doors and was still very much in an embryonic stage.

Borrell later tried to backtrack, saying that the EU did not have enough money to pay for those warplanes. But the damage was done.

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Don’t compare the rest of the world to a jungle

Under no circumstances suggest there could be an invasion of the EU by an uncivilized jungle. You’re not Viktor Orbán.

In October 2022, Borrell sparked outrage once again when he compared Europe to a “garden,” and called the rest of the world a “jungle.” 

“Yes, Europe is a garden, we have built a garden. Everything works,” he said. “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.” 

Needless to say, this comment, which critics said had racist undertones, did not go down well anywhere. Politicians across the world called out the Commission representative for the comparison, arguing it was “inappropriate” and “colonialist.” 

Borrell shrugged off the backlash with a half-baked apology, saying he’d been misinterpreted. 

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Don’t patronize women footballers

A trip to the Barbie movie for some Feminism 101 would be a good move.

Borrell elicited more face-palming on Wednesday this week by saying how pleased he was that Spain’s women footballers “are learning to play football as well as men,” in a ham-fisted comparison to Spain’s 2010 Men’s World Cup winners.

Borell compounded the condescension with unfortunate (for him) timing. 

A sexism scandal was already bubbling following Spain’s Women’s World Cup win on Sunday, after the football federation chief Luis Rubiales gave an unwanted kiss on the lips of victorious player Jenni Hermoso.

Spain’s football chief Luis Rubiales carrying carrying world champion Athenea del Castillo | David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

While the under-fire Rubiales might have thanked his lucky stars that Borrell took some heat off him, the ill-judged remark also served to keep the misogynistic affair top of the Spanish news agenda.

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Don’t tweet confidential documents 

You’d think this one would be obvious. 

But as he prepared to begin the role of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Borrell gave colleagues a sign of the chaos to come in November 2019. 

In his position as Spanish foreign minister, Borrell tweeted out (yep, for real) a sensitive extradition-related document from U.K. authorities. 

The confidential document, which included personal information about the subject, involved a Spanish request for the arrest and extradition of a Catalan politician from Britain who held an academic post at a Scottish university. 

Borrell deleted the tweet and the document, but not before it had been screenshotted by a Catalan MEP, Diana Riba i Giner, who unsuccessfully demanded that Borrell be blocked from the prestigious EU gig. 

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