EU's Josep Borrell says sorry after 'jungle' comments sparked backlash

Many dismiss ‘non-apology’, rejecting foreign policy chief’s claims that remarks were misinterpreted

Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, defended his position in a blog post. EPA
Powered by automated translation

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has issued a written apology after days of controversy over comments he made comparing Europe to a "garden" and the rest of the world a "jungle".

His comments, made last week in front of aspiring diplomats in Bruges, Belgium, sparked accusations of racism, including from the UAE.

They shocked European politicians, with German MEP Hannah Neumann on Tuesday telling The National that the jungle/garden metaphor was problematic because it hailed back to brutal colonial imagery.

Mr Borrell wrote in a blog post published late on Tuesday evening: "Some have misinterpreted the metaphor as 'colonial Euro-centrism'. I am sorry if some have felt offended."

Mr Borrell's comments were also widely condemned by politicians outside Europe. Kenya's permanent representative to the UN on Tuesday tweeted: "At #COP27 we are going to have to ask the gardeners to pay for the extensive, life-destroying damage their gardening has done to the 'jungle'."

In his blog, Mr Borrell rejected accusations of racism. "All my life I have been totally opposed to any form of contempt, or racism towards anyone," he wrote.

He also said that the metaphor used was "not [his] invention".

"Some truly dislike it because, among others, it has been used by US neo-conservatives, but I am far from this school of political thought," he wrote.

Mr Borrell argued that the concept had been present in public debates for decades and referred to a "simple question", asking: "Should the international order be based on principles accepted by all, regardless of the strength of its actors, or should it be based on the will of the strongest, which is commonly called 'the law of the jungle?'"

Europe is a "garden" because "the European integration project came from a rejection of power politics", he said.

The "jungle" refers to "force, intimidation and blackmail" and in particular, to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Mr Borrell said.

"Unfortunately, the 'jungle' is everywhere, including in Ukraine. We must take this trend seriously and that was my message to the students. Certainly, we should not retreat behind the false security of walls and isolationism," he said.

Europeans must remain "humble" in their relations with the rest of the world and the global south, argued Mr Borrell.

"I also have enough experience to know that neither Europe nor 'the West' is perfect and that some countries of 'the West' have at times violated international legality," he wrote.

Mr Borrell's apology came a day after he doubled down on his initial comments when questioned during a press conference in Luxembourg on Monday. He told reporters that he was “disappointed to hear some of the interpretations that have been bandied about" and did not apologise.

Many social media users on Wednesday rejected arguments put forward in his blog post, calling it a "non-apology".

"It caused offence because we understood it correctly, @JosepBorrellF. You and your fellow unelected Brussels thugs have always behaved as colonialists but you thought your 'civilisation' hides your racism, hypocrisy and brutality," tweeted Ali Abunimah, director of online publication The Electronic Intifada.

The Spanish politician, 75, is known for occasional gaffes. Last year, he gave wrong figures for the estimated number of Russian troops massed around Ukraine.

Updated: October 19, 2022, 9:32 AM