Josep Borrell as Europe’s racist ‘gardener’

The top EU diplomat’s poisonous analogy of Europe as a garden and the world as an invading jungle inverts history.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives to attend an informal summit of the European Union (EU) in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 7, 2022. - EU leaders meeting in Prague will look to overcome divisions on how to tackle soaring energy prices as they grapple with the fallout from Russia's war on Ukraine. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at an informal summit of the EU in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 7, 2022. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP) (AFP)

Listening to Europe’s seniormost diplomat Josep Borrell at the inauguration of the new European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium, last Thursday, I could only shake my head in wonder and outrage, as he compared Europe to a garden and the world to a jungle – a beastly and scary jungle.

As far as bad speeches go, his rant wouldn’t have merited much commentary if it weren’t for its undiplomatic insensitivity and racism. It was short on wisdom and long on clichés and contradictions. It was badly structured and poorly delivered.

And yet, for a high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, this was a new low. Just when one thought European politics couldn’t get any worse, Borrell spoke his “truth”. In his paternalistic smugness, he effectively poisoned the young minds of Europe’s future diplomats with utter vainness, conceit and supremacism.

But first, the casual sexism. He started by complimenting “Federica” – his predecessor and the academy’s director Federica Mogherini – for her youthful looks with the gallantry of a Catalan bull. No pun intended of course, since the Catalans prefer donkeys to bulls.

In Trumpian fashion, the diplomat then swiftly gauged the world as if it were a red rag that must be confronted head-on, asking the young souls in his audience to beware of the imminent dangers facing Europe from all sides. He pontificated that “Europe is a garden” but “most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden”.

The little garden, he educated them, cannot defend itself by building a wall. Why? “Because the jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.”

So, what’s the solution? Then came the punch line: “The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”

I could go on and on, citing more from this childish and utterly dreadful metaphor, but I suppose you get the picture. The bottom line: Wonderful prosperous and free Europe is an exception in our otherwise vicious world, and it won’t survive for long unless its “gardeners” go out there to the jungle and help civilise the world.

All his humbug about gardeners reminded me of The Constant Gardener, a John le Carre book and movie inspired by real-life events about a pharmaceutical firm that tested a new drug on poor locals in Africa, killing or maiming many of them.

In real life, European engagement with Africa and the world has gone far beyond pharmaceutical testing to a whole plethora of pillages from colonialism, slavery and genocide to shadow wars and the theft of natural resources.

But European memories can be at times short and selective – even when it comes to their own history. If indeed Europe is a garden, it is one that’s been tilled over a continent-wide cemetery. Lest Borrell forgot about the centuries of religious, nationalist and imperial wars, including the two world wars and many civil wars – like the Spanish civil war and its bloody 36-year dictatorship that only ended in 1975 and that the Catalan diplomat should be particularly familiar with.

That’s not to say there isn’t much to celebrate. Europe has done very well since the second world war in terms of unity, security and prosperity, but only after defeating racism and fascism. But the rise and spread of neo-fascist and far-right politics throughout the continent, and its electoral victories in important countries like Italy, are reasons for caution, not conceit. But then again, if the racist tone of Borrell – supposedly a socialist – is anything to go by, what difference does it make whether Europe is led by the Left or the Right? Tomato, tomahto.

Borrell was also wrong when he claimed, in the same speech, that Europe has become stronger and more independent of the United States since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rather the contrary. A weaker, colder, more vulnerable EU has become more subservient to Washington.

Yet the smug diplomat sounded particularly delusional about the implications of the war as it grinds on. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of a greater war and at the same time expressed readiness for diplomacy, Borrell chose to dismiss any diplomatic solution for the time being. Instead, he threatened that the Russian army would be “annihilated” if Moscow were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, without any thought as to what that may mean to the survival of Europe.

Like his racist rant, this reckless escalation was utterly inappropriate language for Europe’s top diplomat to use while speaking to those aspiring to join his profession, or to anyone else for that matter.

And to end his inspirational, motivational big talk with a final wisdom, Borrell told the prospective envoys to raise their heads high and be good gardeners not only of Europe but of the “jungle”, wishing them happy diplomatic safaris.

All joking aside, Borrell’s racist discourse is terribly dangerous in the current state of international affairs. It must be condemned in Europe first and foremost. Europe deserves better representatives. The world deserves better from Europe.

We all harvest what we sow.