“Palm Trees in the Snow,” EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday (5 February).
“Huh?”, Lavrov said.
“Palm Trees in the Snow,” Borrell repeated, as the two men were leaving a press briefing.
Then Borrell learned Russia had just expelled three EU diplomats.
‘Palm Trees in the Snow’ is a Spanish film about Cuba which had come up earlier in the press conference.
And the briefing’s final moment, in which an off-script Borrell tried to make friends with Lavrov, despite Lavrov’s rudeness, encapsulated Friday’s events.
Russia had notified Germany, Poland, and Sweden that one each of their diplomats in Moscow was “persona non grata” at the same time as Borrell and Lavrov were speaking to media, EU sources told EUobserver.
It did so on grounds the diplomats took part in “unlawful” protests to free Russian opposition hero Alexei Navalny on 22 January, but timed its announcement to cause maximum offence to its guest.
Borrell had gone to Moscow, on his own initiative, in the first high-level EU trip of its type in four years.
He went to hold a “strategic” dialogue, on issues such as Middle East wars, and to pass on the EU message that Navalny must be freed.
But he ended up attacking Europe’s principal ally, the US, alongside the West’s principal adversary, Russia, instead.
The EU diplomat also endorsed Russia’s ‘Sputnik V’ coronavirus vaccine – even though it has not had Europe’s scientific approval.
And he gave Lavrov a free mic to harangue the EU as an “unreliable partner”, while doing little for Navalny.
Borrell took the US to task for its old trade embargo and its recent counter-terrorism sanctions against Cuba, when asked about it by Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik.
The EU “strongly rejected” US sanctions, which “created a lot of difficulties for Cuban people,” Borrell said.
“I didn’t expect to talk about Cuba here in Moscow,” he said.
“The question about Cuba is an interesting one. There’s a Spanish film called Palm Trees in the Snow and as I’m talking here, in Moscow, it’s snowing, so it made me remember,” he added, in an aside.
He also endorsed Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, in ringing terms, even though it has not been approved by the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency in Amsterdam.
“I take the floor just to congratulate Russia on this success. It’s good news for the whole of mankind,” Borrell said.
He did speak of EU “concern” about Navalny’s arrest and poisoning by Russian spies.
But he dropped previous ideas to visit Navalny in prison.
He also did not mention Russia’s ongoing war in east Ukraine.
And he said nothing to counter Lavrov, when the Russian foreign minister hogged the microphone to bad-mouth the US and EU.
US sanctions on Cuba were “methods of colonialist oppression … invented by the United States” and copied by the EU in its sanctions on Russia, Lavrov said.
The US was persecuting supporters of former president Donald Trump and EU states were persecuting anti-government protesters, including in Catalonia, in Borrell’s home country, Spain, Lavrov claimed.
EU leaders were “deluded” and “culturally arrogant” in accusing Russia of trying to assassinate Navalny last year, the Russian minister also said.
Russia’s expulsion of the European diplomats prompted Germany and Poland to summon Russia’s ambassadors in Berlin and Warsaw for an explanation on Friday, EU sources said.
But if the defenestrations crowned Lavrov’s trolling of the EU high representative, they were not the only incident.
The Russian foreign ministry also circulated a video about police brutality in EU states earlier on Friday.
And authorities dragged Navalny from his prison cell into a court in Moscow on Friday morning to face nonsense charges, which could add two years to his existing three-and-a-half year sentence.
Back in Brussels, the European Commission defended Borrell’s handling of his trip, however.
His remarks on Cuba were aimed at Trump’s policies, not the new US administration of president Joe Biden, an EU spokeswoman said.
Borrell dropped trying to visit Navalny because “it would give the wrong impression that we accept the situation [Navalny’s jailing] or agree with it. We do not,” Borrell’s spokeswoman also said.
Her line contradicted previous EU practice of visiting political prisoners on foreign trips.
The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, was also happy Borrell had gone to meet Lavrov, her spokesman said.
“I believe it has led to a frank engagement with Russian authorities”, von der Leyen’s spokesman said, before news of Russia’s EU diplomatic expulsions broke.
Borrell “rejected the allegations that they [the expelled EU diplomats] conducted activities incompatible with their status” and asked Russia to “reconsider” its move, his office said in a statement later in the day.