MEPs dubbed the trip, which came days after the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, "a predictable mistake", "ill-advised", "ill-executed" and "a complete disaster".
Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign affairs chief, faced a barrage of criticism on Tuesday afternoon from MEPs over last week's diplomatic visit to Moscow.
They labelled the trip, which came days after the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, "a predictable mistake", "ill-advised", "ill-executed" and "a complete disaster".
The harsh words in the European Parliament on Tuesday came from across the political spectrum, but many were from Eastern Europe.
Some are upset over the "humiliation" of Russia expelling three European diplomats for attending pro-Navalny rallies as Borrell was meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Others criticised the bad timing of the trip so close to the Navalny case and Borrell's alleged lacklustre condemnation of the opposition leader's jailing.
But MEPs from Borrell's Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) grouping struck a different tone, directing their criticism instead towards Putin. Others denounced Moscow for its human rights violations and the expulsion of the three diplomats.
"Let's remember that the main blame from this fiasco is on Russia," said Radosław Sikorski, a Polish MEP from the European People's Party grouping. "It was Russia that was rude and perfidious towards our high representative [Borrell]."
Most MEPs regretted the absence of consensus among member states when it comes to Russia, which prevented Borrell from delivering a stronger message. Unlike other areas, foreign policy in the EU operates on the basis of unanimity, a requirement that often slows down - or altogether blocks - collective action.
"You have been dealt a very bad hand because of a lack of unity in the [European] Council," said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP from the Green group.
Opposition to the controversial Nord Stream 2 project, a pipeline that, if completed, will increase supplies of Russian gas into Europe, was also a recurring topic in the debate. Other subjects included cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Belarus, as well as Sputnik V, Russia's COVID-19 vaccine that Borrell praised during his visit.
Explicit calls for Borrell's resignation were not prominent in the hemicycle, despite a letter signed by over 70s MEPs demanding him to step down.
'I had no illusions before the visit'
Borrell began the debate by describing the deteriorating relations and growing mistrust between Russia and the European Union.
"I had no illusions before the visit. I'm even more worried after it," he told MEPs.
Borrell decried the "merciless" behaviour of Russian authorities and the authoritarian drift of the government of President Vladimir Putin, but said he will continue to defend the need to maintain open the channels of communication "looking each other in the eye".
He explained that the two sides found some areas of cooperation, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the overall atmosphere of the visit did not allow them to explore anything further.
Borrell clarified that sanctions might still be brought up during the next Foreign Affairs Council and said he will put forward concrete proposals.
After hearing the deluge of criticism from MEPs, which lasted for more than an hour, Borrell switched to his native Spanish and adopted a more combative attitude, defending his diplomatic performance and his physical presence in the Russian capital.
He forcefully denied that he didn't do enough to condemn Navalny's detention in front of Lavrov and rebuffed accusations the trip might have undermined the opposition leader's case.
"There's a transcript, read it!" he told MEPs.
Borrell indicated that, over the last two years, there had been 19 trips from EU countries to Russia at a ministerial level.
"Can everybody go there except the High Representative? Then what do you have it for? My colleagues can go, but not me," he complained. "It's easy to write statements from my desk, it's more comfortable and less risky."
Borrell accused MEPs of bringing forward baseless criticism and said the Kremlin will be "delighted to perceive" the divisions within the EU.
"Authoritarian countries think democracies are intrinsically weak, but history proves otherwise," he stated. "Democracies, we are more resilient because we have a sense of unity above our differences."
At the end of the debate, Borrell urged "all EU institutions to analyse with intelligence and serenity" the future steps to define the relations with Russia.
'He's not the messenger boy, he's the High Representative'
The controversy over Borrell's visit to Moscow is poised to linger in the European Parliament. MEPs have long called for the end of unanimity in the EU's foreign policy to enable swifter response and have always taken a harder line than national governments concerning EU-Russia relations.
"If he [Borrell] didn't have a mandate, he shouldn't have gone. He's not a messenger boy, he's the High Representative, he has a duty to secure a position of the European Union in the Council. If he's unable to secure that position, he shouldn't go," Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch MEP of the liberal group Renew Europe, told Euronews.
"If we're talking about a strong, geopolitical, sovereign European Union, then we need somebody who can represent the European Union with political clout. Can you imagine something like this happening to the US secretary of state and nobody responding?", she added.
Ignacio Sánchez Amor, a Spanish MEP with the socialist group, dismissed calls for Borrell's resignation. "This criticism within the European Union is only helping the Russian agenda. This is exactly the thing that Putin wants to see, a not united European Union in his answer to the poisoning," he told Euronews.
"We're asking European diplomacy to be proactive, not only reactive. And now we're being more proactive," he said. "We're learning the language of power, this is not comfortable in some occasions, and this has been the case."