Russia and Europe: A New Round?

17 december 2015

Timofey Bordachev - Head of the Eurasian Programme of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Ph.D. in Political Science, Russia

Resume: Russia is ready for dialogue with the EU on a fundamentally new basis. A return to the relations we had three years ago is pointless and impossible. We must create a new format.

During the past few weeks I had to take part in several events staged by leading West European expert centers in close cooperation with state authorities. I found the extensive expert consultations held by the Hague Institute for Global Justice with the support of the Dutch Foreign Ministry particularly impressive.

The aim of these consultations was to help High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini develop a new EU foreign policy and security strategy. Obviously, the EU’s previous strategy of 2003 is desperately outdated. It was adopted in a completely different era, notably, “a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.”

The conduct and reasoning of our European colleagues are governed by two contradictory emotions: satisfaction with the results already achieved and uncertainty about Europe’s future in the world. On the whole, European politicians are content with the outcome of the events in Ukraine. Russia is complying with the Minsk Agreements while numerous violations and provocations by Kiev do not prevent the EU from blaming Moscow for delaying the completion of the peace process. The EU does not bear serious responsibility for the future of either Ukraine or Donbass.

The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) between Brussels and Kiev enters into force on January 1, 2016. Its implementation will be accompanied by Ukraine’s mounting de-industrialization, the destruction of its social system and the release of considerable amounts of cheap labor into the European market. This workforce will not be protected by Europe’s fairly tough social standards and trade unions. At the same time Europe, especially Germany, has received dozens (if not hundreds) of thousands of fresh laborers – representatives of the middle class and religious minorities (Alawites, the Druze and the Yazidis) fleeing Syria and other countries of a disintegrating Middle East to escape DAESH terror.

This flood of refugees has challenged the solidarity of the EU member countries. Many analysts even speak about the strongest crisis of European integration in history. However, based on their historical experience, the majority of European policymakers still believe in their ability to steer the integration ship out of this storm. Judging by the crisis resolution processes of the past few years, the ship will be no less sturdy than following the aftermath of any cyclic integration crisis, all the more so since the European economies, with a few minor exceptions, are recovering.

Talks with the United States on forming the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are making slow headway. The Europeans are counting on getting several serious concessions on access to the US market and then bog down the implementation process during its subsequent ratification by the European Parliament and the 28 national legislative bodies. At any rate, for the time being no European believes that the proposed partnership will ever become a reality.

At the same time, European politicians, including those at the top level, noted many times that the time when Europe and the West in general could dictate their will to the world is gone and never to return. They openly admit that the West is “super-represented” in international economic institutions, primarily the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Hence, it would appear that it is time to accept the need to revise the quota ratio in these institutions in favor of the new growing economies, first of all China’s. Europe is more reserved than the United States regarding the opportunity to replace the old and “failing” international institutions with their new region-oriented versions. The brightest example of the latter is the recently established Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

So, the global ambitions of the EU are done away with. Obviously, now European countries are badly in need of stronger borders and utmost stabilization of their adjacent areas. It is no accident that the new version of EU neighborhood policy will be aimed not at transforming their neighbors but at stabilizing neighborly relations. Europe needs peace and calm at its borders in order to resolve its domestic problems and digest the acquisitions of the past few years.

All these tasks are prompting Europeans to think of ways of improving relations with Russia, which have been seriously harmed in the past two years. The same idea is expressed in the recently published Clingendael Report by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, a think tank that works in very close cooperation with the Dutch Government and Foreign Ministry. Its author, prominent Dutch expert Peter van Ham, bluntly names the blunders of EU policy towards Russia and outlines the need for a more realistic and practical EU-Russia relationship.

For its part, Russia is ready for dialogue with the EU on a fundamentally new basis. A return to the relations we had three years ago is pointless and impossible. We must create a new format, but before doing this we all must answer a number of most important questions, such as:

Will the EU manage to make its policy towards the rest of the world customer-friendly instead of being producer-oriented (EU)? Since its inception the EU’s policy towards both close and remote partners has been based on what Europe can offer and what it wants to gain from foreign ties. It has continued, as it were, the EU’s internal structure with all its pluses and minuses. That said, this policy has not reflected the world’s expectations from Europe or the interests of the EU partners in the world arena.

Will the EU switch to a policy of “genuine multilateralism” that would not divide international organizations and integration groups into “good” and “bad”? For the time being the EU was very selective in this respect and cooperated only with those groups that have recognized its leadership and been oriented toward Brussels. This policy has already produced some major aberrations. Thus, Brussels has not recognized for years the existence of Eurasian integration and refused to establish formal relations with its institutions. Meanwhile, the time to establish direct relations between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union and draft a relevant framework treaty has long been overdue.

Will Russia be able to preserve its pivot to the East and translate it into practical deeds? Russia and its Asian partners, especially China, have made spectacular progress in the past few years. Moscow-Beijing ties have turned into a strategic partnership of having each other’s backs. This new quality of relations should be embodied in the linking of the Eurasian economic integration with the Silk Road’s economic belt, which was approved by the leaders of the two countries in May 2015. This positive dynamic should not be wasted. Acting as a strong Eurasian player, Russia will be better suited to develop its new strategic relations with Europe.

Valdai Discussion Club

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