The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs has appropriately elevated responsibilities. He or she “shapes the standing of the European Union on the global stage”, according to the EU’s website. The representative, Josep Borrell, is also the Vice President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, and is head of the union’s diplomatic service.
So it was surely someone else, possibly “someone from the far right”, as the prominent Filipino academic Aries Arugay tweeted, who said the following last week: “Europe is a garden ... It is the best combination … that humankind has been able to build. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”
It was, however, Mr Borrell who was speaking in Bruges at the inauguration of the European Diplomatic Academy. Was such patently undiplomatic language a slip of the tongue? No. The speech was pre-released. Did any of the highly paid Eurocrats who advise Mr Borrell warn him against using wording so offensive that the UAE has summoned the acting head of the EU mission to explain the "inappropriate and discriminatory" remarks? It didn’t make any difference if so. Did his predecessor, Federica Mogherini, who was looking on, object? Did anyone in the audience heckle or shout “shame”? I have watched the speech and they did not.
So the EU’s High Representative to the globe has basically announced that in his view, Europe is civilised (perhaps he includes countries dominated by European settlers too), and the rest of the world is uncivilised. If anyone thinks that it is a stretch of interpretation, be clear that he was using the word “jungle” in a highly derogatory sense. “A nice small garden surrounded by high walls in order to prevent the jungle from coming in is not going to be a solution,” he went on. “Because the jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.”
This is only a step away from the odious “great replacement” conspiracy theory – that hordes of immigrants, chiefly Muslim, are supposedly set to overwhelm the continent and its white inhabitants’ cultures. No wonder Europe is so keen to welcome those fleeing the Ukrainian “garden” but not those from the “jungles” of North Africa, the Middle East, or Asia.
Mr Borrell went further, concluding by telling his young “gardeners” that “your duty will not be to take care of the garden itself but of the jungle outside". Ah yes, it’s just like the “mission civilisatrice”, or civilising mission, that former French colonies from Algeria to Vietnam remember so fondly. A Russian foreign affairs spokeswoman responded to the speech with a clarity that reflects outrage throughout the “jungle”. “Europe built that ‘garden’ through the barbaric plundering of the ‘jungle’,” she said. “Borrell could not have phrased it any better: the world’s most prosperous system, created in Europe, nurtured by roots in colonies which they ruthlessly oppressed.”
Once a speechwriter for former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and media adviser to UN General Assembly president Maria Espinoza, Mark Seddon, tells me: “This is a remark that could have been made by an ignorant racist in the 1930s, and should be completely unacceptable in the 2020s.”
I agree. But it is very telling where this speech has been mentioned. Until The New York Times ran an article on Monday, all the reports on it were in non-western media (including in this newspaper). Google searches show that, at the time of writing, the great organs of the European media have totally ignored Mr Borrell’s abhorrent comparisons – although a report by the Reuters wire service, which most newsrooms subscribe to, on the UAE’s summoning of the local EU head, might change that.
“Imagine if a Chinese official were to say something like this. We would not stop hearing about it for the next decade,” says Shahriman Lockman, a director at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia (which is, as it happens, situated next to an area of dense secondary rainforest in the capital, Kuala Lumpur).
So why the lack of reaction in “the garden”? Do Europeans think Mr Borrell is so loose-lipped that his ill-advised comments are no longer worth writing about – in which case he should not be in such an important position? Or do they tacitly agree with him? After all, sometimes the mask does slip. I’m reminded of a Malaysian friend who was once staying at an English country house when two younger guests announced that they were going to visit the Malaysian part of Borneo. “Be very careful there,” said the host. “It’s full of savages and cannibals.” Upon realising that my friend was from the very country he had just maligned, he quickly added: “Oh, I don’t mean you, my dear!”
Mr Borrell’s insulting words underline why Europe, and the West more broadly, sometimes has trouble gaining greater traction for its narratives in the Global South. As one South-East Asian analyst said to me: “At least the Russians and the Chinese do a better job of keeping any prejudices they may have about ‘the jungle’ to themselves.”
The man himself claims not to know what all the fuss is about, and Mr Borrell’s boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has offered no correction to him. Many from “the jungle”, including government officials, have, however, taken a different view on social media.
The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 group, co-founded by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, spoke for many in the statement it released on Monday: “In calling most of the rest of the world ‘a jungle’, Borrell has degraded billions of people in parts of the world that are underdeveloped as a direct result of Europe’s colonial legacy, and shown that, far from wanting to atone for this immense injustice, his top priority is perpetuating it. Borrell’s conduct, put simply, is unfit for the office he holds. We demand his immediate resignation.”
Unless Mr Borrell swiftly issues an abject apology, there can be no other option. Otherwise, the EU has just told the rest of the world exactly what it thinks about it. And it doesn't make for pleasant reading.