The fact that, in the 20th century, states have learned to take into consideration cooperation matters when identifying the main goals and objectives of their foreign policy,is a vastly positive development. That is not enough, though. It is imperative to strive for understanding cooperation as something that is inextricably linked with ensuring the most important national interest, which is survival and preservation of sovereignty, even despite the fact that the world’s leading economic and military power − the United States − seems to be doing everything to achieve the opposite outcome. It is unlikely that any state other than the United States can afford to claim now that it is capable of ensuring and strengthening its national sovereignty totally independently of other states.
Another Eurasian Week − a political, business and expert forum of the EAEU member countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia) − took place in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The purpose of the forum is to draw public attention to the achievements of Eurasian economic integration and the opportunities it gives to its member countries. Also, it is designed to provide interested companies from the EAEU countries with a chance to meet each other and identify opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation on a single common platform. As is customary, first deputy prime ministers of the Union countries in charge of Eurasian integration took part in the plenary session. The discussions about the strategic aspects of EAEU development allow us to raise fundamental questions which relate to the theory and practice of integration in general.
Following the discussions on the sidelines of the forum, the experts agreed that Eurasian economic integration continues. This is particularly important because it has become the first case in history of the voluntary, peaceful and rational association of states on the main part of the planet. However, it is no less important to understand that integration is now at risk of falling into a state of stagnation, a kind of “sclerosis,” as it happened, for example, in the case of the benchmark European integration process of modern times in the late 1960s−early 1980s. However, European countries were then able to take pause and adapt national systems to the requirements underlying the creation of a common market. In military-political terms, they were under fairly dependable US protection, and in terms of the economy, they maintained dominant and attractive market rules, especially against the background of the declining Soviet system in the East. The EAEU states do not own such resources and are unlikely to ever have access to them.
The question naturally arises of how integration stagnation can be overcome in the modern Eurasian and broader international environment? This environment, by the way, is not as hostile as one may think looking only at the political side of the matter. Modern studies show that the current international context is more likely to contribute, rather than hinder, the development of associations with a high degree of institutionalization, such as the European Union in its economic dimension. “Softer” forms, such as the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), are either sluggish or not developing at all.
However, the question of how to give integration a new impetus invariably leads to a revival of the debate about what forms it should take down the road. The vision of these forms and the functional load of the association is a purely sovereign affair of the sole bearers of legitimacy in this entire arrangement, which are the national states. Here, the countries participating in integration find themselves faced with a truly fundamental problem that has both a theoretical and a practical side.
The crux of the matter is to determine the place of integration among the national foreign policy priorities or the importance of the participation in advanced international cooperation in order to reach the intended goals, the most important among which − for any state − is to ensure national sovereignty and survival in a chaotic international environment
In this regard, we may ask to what extent the subjective assessment by a state of the role of international cooperation and integration in ensuring its individual sovereignty is decisive for the actual agenda and results of this particular state’s participation in integration?
In the first quarter of the 19th century, Chancellor of the Austrian Empire Klemens von Metternich formulated the reason for taking into consideration the categories of cooperation in foreign policy the following way: “since an isolated state no longer exists <…> we must always view the society of nations as the essential condition of the modern world.” The degree of interest a state has in considering common interests is proportionate to its size and depends on how this size relates to self-esteem. Clearly, medium and small states benefit strategically from EU integration. They need integration and its institutions to preserve their sovereignty in the face of powerful international players outside the EU. Just like any other integration association. Integration and its institutions need them as these states provide a critical mass of “contributors” for whom survival as independent players outside of integration is unthinkable. Also, the relatively small clout and strategic importance of a state always bring closer the objective and the subjective dimensions in its international political positioning.
For their part, the major participants in the integration process also tend to see it at the center of their efforts to ensure their strategic independence in the face of even more powerful states. Germany in the EU, or Russia in the EAEU, are compelled to build institutions with smaller partners. Also, they have to give them, of their own accord, the mandate that seems incommensurable with the contribution provided by smaller partners, if thinking in the categories of the classic alignment of forces. Therefore, within the framework of cooperation, the powers which, in order to ensure their sovereignty, either have alternative integration options, or believe that the tasks of survival are better addressed in a paradigm other than integration, are confronted with the most challenging dilemma. In the European Union, Poland is a vivid example of such a participant, but similar cases can be found in other regional integration associations as well. As a result, integration can be pushed to the periphery of the national agenda, which, of course, is detrimental to the effects achieved by it.
As noted above, the states, and, accordingly, their representatives evaluate the role of integration in their life exclusively on a subjective basis. In this subjective world, the countries participating in integration associations can consider their development as a peripheral task in relation to other foreign policy goals. This is quite natural and coincides with an understanding of national interests in simplistic terms. Also, a subjective assessment of the place held by integration in a series of national priorities can be motivated by the need to justify the inevitable choice before the subjective desire to maximize sovereignty in its most conservative terms. In a sense, it’s a way to sell integration to themselves. In what way does this inevitable, as we now see, quest for the golden mean affect the most important factors for the success of integration; for example, mutual trust of participants is, in turn, also a subject for an academic and expert discussion.
Hence, another major practical problem for Eurasian integration is the constant focus of the participants in expert discussions on the question “What is to be done?” instead of “How it should be done?” The list of major challenges facing integration is quite obvious. It mainly consists of the consequences of the less-than-diligent execution by the EAEU member countries of their obligations assumed under the fundamental Treaty, not to mention secondary laws. These difficulties and shortcomings have been discussed for years and have been repeatedly posed to the governments of the countries of the Union by supranational EAEU institutions. Posing them for the umpteenth time is absolutely meaningless, if you do not make specific decisions about ways to jointly deal with the setbacks and the responsible institutions.
This includes those aimed at eliminating the institutional integration holes that appeared during the period of its political and legal execution. The lack of a full-fledged intergovernmental component in it is one such omission and the biggest obstacle to promoting the EAEU supranational institutions. As a result, the Eurasian Economic Commission, which is the driver behind the entire integration effort, is becoming a body for coordinating national interests. This adversely affects its mandatory relative independence from the subjective assessments and perceptions of the participating countries.
To sum up, we can say that the current state of the academic and expert discussions about Eurasian integration makes it possible to view it as a legitimate object of research. This experience, unique for all the participating countries, allows us to apply the methods developed by integration science to the EAEU and also to use the problems it faces as proper examples and cases. This represents a very significant positive outcome, which the participating countries and supranational EAEU administration should take credit for.