New EU diplomatic head pledges focus on Balkans, Russia

Josep Borrell urges bloc to stand firm on economic sanctions against Moscow until there is 'tectonic change' in Kremlin.

    Borrell: 'Until such time as Russia changes its attitude on Crimea and territorial violations, those sanctions must remain' [Yves Herman/Reuters]
    Borrell: 'Until such time as Russia changes its attitude on Crimea and territorial violations, those sanctions must remain' [Yves Herman/Reuters]

    The European Union's incoming foreign affairs chief said on Monday he would focus on the Balkans and Europe's eastern neighbours, while urging the bloc to stand firm on sanctions against Russia.

    Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister set to take over next month as the EU's foreign policy high representative, told a confirmation hearing at the European Parliament that the best way to tackle Russian "expansionism" was to support countries like Ukraine on their path to democracy and prosperity.

    The EU has punishing economic sanctions in place against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

    Some countries close to Moscow have suggested that it could be time to ease off.

    Separately, France has been pushing for warmer ties with Russia, with President Emmanuel Macron hosting Vladimir Putin and renewing high-level diplomatic ties.

    But Borrell said the EU must maintain sanctions against Russia until there is a "tectonic change" in the Kremlin.

    "Until such time as Russia changes its attitude on Crimea and territorial violations, those sanctions must remain," he said.

    As a gesture to show the importance he attaches to bringing stability to the Balkans, Borrell promised to make Pristina the destination for his first official visit - a significant move given that Spain does not officially recognise Kosovo as an independent state.

    The EU's diplomatic arm, under current chief Federica Mogherini, has made little headway in brokering a detente between Kosovo and Serbia - which regards it as a breakaway province - despite several years of efforts.

    Borrell's new boss, the incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, has called for the EU to become a bigger geopolitical actor.

    "The Balkans and the eastern borders of the EU, they are the main priorities of our foreign policy," Borrell said. "We can't have ambitions to be global players if we can't sort out problems on our own borders."

    Borrell took a tough tone on China, telling the parliament's foreign affairs committee - whose approval he needs - that Beijing represented "as much a systemic rival as an economic opportunity and partner on global issues".

    If approved by the committee, Borrell will take office on November 1.

    SOURCE: AFP news agency