When in recent years journalists and political observers
characterized relations between Russia and the European Union as
being in crisis, Moscow and Brussels angrily objected. As evidence
they offered the results of biannual summits. Each summit did, in
fact, produce some document signifying, or at least potentially
signifying, a step forward.
But now the impasse between the two sides is obvious. The summit
to be held Friday near Samara is not expected to produce any
significant results. If the unsuccessful high-level meeting in
Helsinki last autumn could be dismissed as nothing more than an
annoying episode, today the mutual hostility cannot be brushed
under the carpet.
The disagreement over the quality of Polish meat that seemed to
be a mere technicality some months ago has now become a political
issue. With each passing day it becomes increasingly difficult for
either Moscow or Warsaw to take a step back. All the more so since
Germany, which has made titanic efforts to bring both sides to a
compromise, now appears to have given up. And if Berlin initially
sympathized with Moscow, and all of Europe was greatly irritated
with Warsaw’s obstinacy, today the blame is laid on Russia.
Negotiations are not expected to be renewed on a new strategic
partnership pact to replace the EU-Russia Partnership and
Cooperation Agreement, which expires at the end of this year. And
while the threat that either Lithuania or Estonia could veto the
process does not improve matters, it is more or less irrelevant
given the current impasse.
There are numerous causes behind the current crisis. The overall
situation changed significantly following the EU’s expansion in
2004. Whatever the leaders of the former Soviet bloc states may
have stated publicly, they saw their accession to the EU as a
chance to settle historical scores with Moscow.
Poland is a separate case. Warsaw is pursuing a goal that has no
direct relation to Moscow: to strengthen its position within a
united Europe and to join the inner circle of the EU’s most
influential countries. A few years ago Warsaw promoted the idea of
the EU’s «eastern dimension» with the intention of becoming the
point man for EU policy regarding Russia and the former Soviet
Union. In this way the Polish political elite hoped to increase its
importance on the European stage. But this idea received no support
among the leaders of the major Western European powers, who
reasoned that Warsaw could not play the role of honest broker for
historical reasons. Poland has achieved its goal, however, albeit
by different means. Today it is Warsaw that holds the key to
relations with Moscow.
Political fragmentation within the EU has also contributed to
deteriorating relations with Russia. The integration crisis does
not make it any easier to develop ties with important foreign
partners. The battle of national governments with the European
Commission for power further complicates the search for a long-term
strategy. The tug-of-war between Brussels and the capitals of
member states has also led to disputes between various blocs within
Russia tried to use the lack of unity within the EU to single
out larger countries for exclusive partnerships. This tactic seemed
to be successful for a time, but as we now see, it did more harm
than good. Moscow’s attempts to circumvent less-desirable countries
have endangered relations with its loyal partners. Even such major
powers as Germany and France could not ignore reproaches from the
other EU countries for having violated European solidarity and for
having grown too cozy with the Kremlin. And Moscow’s unwillingness
or inability to maintain its composure in its relations with
Eastern European governments has forced Western European nations to
side with them against Russia, even when they initially had little
inclination to do so, as in the cases of Poland and Estonia.
The change of leadership in leading European countries has
nullified Moscow’s attempts to bolster its influence through
personal relationships. President Vladimir Putin will never have
the sort of bond with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French
President Nicholas Sarkozy that he enjoyed with their predecessors.
Britain’s next prime minister, Gordon Brown, has little interest in
Russia. Putin fares better with Italian Prime Minister Romano
Prodi, but this is nothing compared with his friendship with Silvio
All of these specific reasons for the cooling of EU-Russian
relations are manifestations of a profound conceptual crisis. The
basic problem is that Russia and the EU lack strategic goals for
their relationship. Neither Moscow nor Brussels has defined what it
wants from the other. During the period leading up to the signing
of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1994, and its
ratification in 1997, both sides took the position that Russia
would gradually continue its «Europeanization» according to the
Brussels recipe, but without the eventual prospect of EU
membership. The plan was not particularly realistic, but at least
it was conceptually sound.
Everything has changed since then. The EU has doubled in size
and run into management problems. Russia has ceased to depend on
external financing and is no longer open to models of governance
offered from beyond its borders.
Even the understanding of what constitutes integration has
changed. In the 1990s it connoted Russia’s aspiration toward
European political, economic and social norms. Now Moscow considers
integration an exchange of interests among equals. The scope of
national interests has also narrowed to economic, and specifically
What’s worse, the process of transformation continues. Nobody
can say what the EU or Russia will be like in 10 or 15 years. Any
talk of a long-term agreement seems ridiculous considering the rate
and scale of the current changes.
In the absence of common goals and values, negotiations — even
if they were to get underway — would get bogged down in
horsetrading on a multitude of economic issues. The overall
unfavorable tone in EU-Russia relations will turn minor stumbling
blocks into major political hurdles. The irrational but obvious
election-year jitters in Moscow will only make matters worse.
Russia and the EU need a new model. Their interdependence and
cultural-societal affinity are incontestable, as is their mutual
inability to build a satisfactory relationship using current
methods. The EU should understand that it can no longer talk down
to Russia and teach it how to behave. Russia needs to realize that
legal nihilism, changing the rules after the game has begun and
reliance on economic coercion cannot lead to the desired
Brussels and Moscow like to say they have come a long way over
the last 15 years. That’s true. But experience is only useful is
properly understood and when it leads to the proper conclusions.
That requires intellectual freedom and an ability to think outside
the box that are not yet evident in either Russia or the EU. So for
now, we’ll just carry on under the Partnership and Cooperation
Agreement, which can be extended indefinitely.