MADRID — The nomination of Spain’s outspoken top diplomat Josep Borrell as EU foreign policy chief marks a return for the 72-year-old to the frontline of European politics after a first stint over a decade ago.
Known not to mince his words and prone to the occasional outburst, Borrell has led efforts to revive Spain’s reputation after a failed secession attempt in Catalonia. He has been active over the crisis in Venezuela and has not hidden his criticism of US President Donald Trump.
His appointment, if approved by European Parliament, marks a meteoric political rebirth for the man who in 1999 renounced leading the Socialist Party — and thus stand for election the following year — over a financial scandal.
That prompted Borrell to turn to European politics, serving as president of the European Parliament between 2004 and 2007.
Then followed a period largely out of the public eye until Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez picked the Catalan last year to be Spain’s top diplomat.
Staunchly pro-EU and against Catalonia’s secession movement which culminated in a failed declaration of independence in October 2017, Borrell set about defending Spain’s judiciary and democracy after nine Catalan separatist leaders were jailed pending a trial for rebellion.
“It is a war in which we can’t use weapons but propaganda is key. They use it very well and the Spanish government very badly,” Borrell has said.
In March, he stormed out of an interview with a German television station after being asked about the treatment of jailed Catalan independence leaders.
He has also been active over Venezuela, helping Spain take the lead in Europe on its dealings with the economically-strapped Latin American country that is going through a major political and humanitarian crisis.
And on more than one occasion, Borrell has hit out at Trump.
In September last year, he revealed that the US president had suggested building a wall along the Sahara desert to stem the arrival of migrants, as he plans to do on the Mexican border.
“‘But do you know how big the Sahara is?’,” Borrell said he responded.
He has also accused Trump’s administration of acting like “a cowboy” for its implicit threat of military intervention in Venezuela.
Born on April 24, 1947 in a tiny village in the Catalan Pyrenees, Borrell is the son of a baker who used to accompany his father to deliver bread in villages by donkey.
A bright student, he won several scholarships which allowed him to obtain a degree in aeronautical engineering in Madrid, then a masters degree at Stanford University in the United States and another masters in Paris. He also has a doctorate degree in economics.
A father of two children from a first marriage with a French woman he met while working at a kibbutz in Israel, Borrell has been in a relationship for the past two decades with Cristina Narbona, president of the Socialist Party.
He served as deputy finance minister and then public works minister under former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who was in power between 1982 and 1996.
Borrell was elected leader of the party in 1998 but he renounced the position the following year before a 2000 general election due to a financial scandal involving two of his former co-workers when he was deputy finance minister.
Before returning to the frontline of national politics last year, Borrell was a member of the board of renewable energy group Abengoa.
Last year, he was fined 30,000 euros ($34,000) for insider trading after selling shares in the group in 2015 shortly before it announced it was on the verge of bankruptcy.