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Thursday, March 2, 2023

EU Foreign Policy Chief’s Troubling Habit

Early last week, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief, made some highly troubling comments about several African countries. Speaking about Russia’s recent engagements in Africa and the supposed possibility of disinformation, he declared, “Minister [of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey] Lavrov is touring Africa again. These days, Mali and Eritrea; well, easy countries for them but others not so easy. Trying to spread lies about who is guilty for what is happening there.” 

These comments, although brief, are problematic for a variety of reasons. For one, they have racist undertones and are patronizing. Borrell arrogantly denies the agency of Africans and seems to suggest that they are incapable of deciding for themselves on their partnerships – forgetting or dismissing the basic fact that all sovereign nations, including African, are free to choose their own paths. 

Additionally, demonstrating great hubris, he questions Africans’ capacity and intelligence in regard to deciphering disinformation, basically portraying them as being young children that are in deep need of Western guidance and direction.

And, of course, Borell making problematic comments about Africans (or non-Europeans) is becoming a troubling habit.

A troubling habit

For Borrell, publicly denigrating Africans and calling into question their basic intelligence is not a rare incident, but actually a regular, recurring pattern.

For instance, during a session of the EU Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference in December last year, Borrell declared,

“Russia is able to deflect blame, twist reality, and find an audience in some parts of the world. I have seen on TV screens these young African people on the streets of Bamako [the capital of Mali] with billboards saying ‘[Russian President Vladimir] Putin, thanks. You have saved Donbas and now you will save us.’ It is shocking. You can consider that these people do not know where Donbas is or maybe they do not even know who Putin is.”

Prior to that, in October 2022, during an address at the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium, Borrell said, “Europe is a garden. We have built a garden…The rest of the world…is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle. The jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners should take care of it.”

Borrell’s comments, both last year and more recently, have provoked criticism and pushback. This is unsurprising, as collectively they reek of racism and sheer arrogance, and they are dripping in colonial hubris and paternalism.

In addition to remembering that the West’s own history is far from rosy, involving great violence, considerable conflict, and much bloodshed, it is worth recalling that the dark horrors of colonialism and slavery – which actually played a significant role in building up the prosperity of the so-called “garden” – were fundamentally underpinned by the inherent belief held by Western racists that the rest of the world was inferior, backward, and savage, while the West itself represented the height of civilization. The obligation and duty, indeed the burden, of the noble West was to conquer and civilize the rest of the barbaric world. This is the archaic view reflected in Borrell’s series of recent comments(especially those using the garden and jungle framing) and obviously can only be deplored.

What is more, at an especially critical juncture in time when many parts of the world, particularly the West, seem to be increasingly fragmenting, with growing social divisions, large-scale conflict, and a continued slide toward extremism, Borrell’s comments are troubling in that they serve to promote even further intolerance, division, animosity, and discrimination.

Failed approaches are partly rooted in the belief of its inherent superiority

Beyond the points made above, there is another important dimension to Borrell’s series of comments. Specifically, they help to reveal part of the underlying reasons for why the EU (and broader West) have often pursued failed approaches in many parts of the world. It is hard to cooperate with and understand others when you hold a belief of your inherent superiority. One pertinent example is the Horn of Africa.

Home to nearly 200 million people, the Horn of Africa is a significant landmass with huge historical and geopolitical importance. As well, the adjoining Red Sea remains a vital economic artery and plays a crucial role in the global maritime trade by connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean. (It is estimated that more than 10 percent of all seaborne cargo passes through its waters annually.)

Unfortunately, over many decades this significant region has been marked by recurrent crises, numerous conflicts, and near constant turmoil. The opportunities squandered have been enormous and the vast potential of the region has remained largely unfulfilled. The reasons are numerous and complex. Certainly, many of them are local. But it is inarguable that the EU and broader West’s approach has also played a harmful role. 

In particular, for decades, they have pursued an array of flawed policies in the Horn of Africa, including, but not limited to: interfering in the internal affairs of countries; establishing and supporting proxy groups; resorting to basic coercion, threats, and the brute logic of force; inducing paralysis of regional and international forums to render them susceptible to domination; and demonizing, isolating, and sanctioning countries that it presumes to have “stepped out of line”. Furthermore, external models and frameworks have been imposed, with little regard for local culture and context, unique circumstances, or deep-rooted historical dynamics.

It is far from a stretch to state that the EU and West’s policies in the region have had a deleterious impact on the region and wrought immense damage. Again, while several factors driving these policies can be pinpointed, one strong element has been the same as that which underlies Borrell’s spate of recent comments. 

The EU and West have continued to demonstrate deeply entrenched feelings of inherent superiority and arrogant paternalism. In the Horn, for instance, the region’s problems have been viewed through an interventionist prism – a modern day “civilizing mission” – and it often seems that the EU and West lack any interest in genuine dialogue on the basis of equality, instead preferring hierarchical directives and confrontation.

Genuine cooperation is not possible when one party fails to extend the other basic respect or recognize its equivalence. Certain of its own righteousness and nobility of intentions, the West has repeatedly failed to learn or adapt from past mistakes and been completely unable to fathom that the countries in the region could possibly have valid alternative views or interests that diverge from its own. For Borrell and others it is much easier to suggest that Africans lack intelligence or are easy to manipulate with disinformation, rather than reflect on the West’s own failures or acknowledge that African states have the legitimate right to establish partnerships and cooperate with any state of their choosing.

Ultimately, with a patronizing mentality rooted in Western-centrism and colonial attitudes of racism, superiority, and paternalism, the EU and West have failed in their policies and approach to the Horn of Africa, while contributing to crises in the region. A shift in attitude could go a long way.


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