Russia’s modernization should be “a common European project, just as it was during the reign of Peter the Great,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in London during a two-day visit aimed to improve relations ahead of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow later this year. This could even be the key to easing out of the global financial crisis, he said.
This is a very bold statement, after all our global economic future will not be decided in Russia or even in the European Union. But it does give us a sense of what is to come.
Last summer, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev instructed diplomats to redouble their efforts to bring about economic modernization. Clear outlines have been set: strategic questions such as disarmament and non-proliferation are to be discussed with the United States, the future of global politics with Asia – where this future is being formed, and modernization, which is a social and economic rather than political question, with Europe.
This last can, in part, be explained by tradition. In the past Europe has often provided the impetus for Russia’s renewal, for example during the era of Peter the Great, as Lavrov mentioned in London. But the shifts now underway in the global agenda are even more important. Europe is no longer the formidable geopolitical player it once was: bogged down as it is in its internal problems. This is why the “common European project” that Lavrov proposed has a good chance of success.
The EU has grown increasingly absorbed in its internal problems since the mid-2000s, when the Lisbon Treaty, intended to bring Europe closer to its goal of federalization and political centralization, encountered difficulties. Today, the EU is no longer a consolidated international entity but rather a conglomerate of interstate relations where foreign policy decisions are only taken after much bickering and once everything has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. The EU’s new institutions are still not functioning properly and economic stratification remains very deep, which is why Brussels and other European capitals have no time to consider more global matters.
The EU foreign policy has lost its punch, as recent events in North Africa highlight. The EU proved unable to respond to events that were unfolding in an area where it had direct geographical, historical, cultural and economic interests. Where it once claimed to be an international player acting independently of the United States, it is now fully dependent on its transatlantic partner. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton waited for Washington’s reaction before making a statement on the unrest that recently began sweeping North Africa.
One result of this increasingly toothless foreign policy is the wave of Tunisian refugees flooding Italy, which is a timely reminder of what happens when major players fail to stand up and pursue a proactive policy.
It is no coincidence that Europe is becoming engrossed in its own problems, and this situation could drag on for a considerable time. Its immediate goal should be to resolve economic, social and other internal contradictions. The EU is likely to limit its foreign policy activity to the Eastern Partnership project, designed to improve its political, economic and trade relations with post-Soviet states of “strategic importance.” But even that project will be limited in scope because the EU lacks the funds needed to support real expansion and merely sustaining a semblance of activity would in any case be futile.
The EU-Russia Partnership for Modernization, which has been in the pipeline for 18 months, could give both sides a chance to feel that they are part of a project that is both challenging and promising.
Objectively, Russia and Europe are two mutually complementary entities. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said as much in the early 2000s and Europe’s leaders echoed his opinion. But the attempts at “rapprochement through integration,” as the German Foreign Ministry put it, faltered after hitting a number of obstacles.
First, the EU thought it was going strong and that it was in a position to dictate cooperation terms to Russia. Then Russia flexed its hydrocarbon muscles and started resisting this pressure from Europe, sometimes acting as if that resistance was its end goal. Europe accused Russia of violating “universal values,” and Russia struck back with ideological constructs of its own.
Both sides are now realizing that the reality is very different. To begin with, Europe is fast becoming a global backwater and its internal tensions and disagreements no longer carry international ramifications. This inevitably means a reduced role for European players. Russia could strengthen it, but only through its actions in Asia.
Second, Greater Europe, which comprises the EU and the countries outside it, has no hope of becoming the world’s leading power in the 21st century.
Third, the number of internal problems hindering external success is developing into an unpleasant quality in both parts of Greater Europe, which now has to prioritize their solution.
And lastly, differences in values will gradually wane as each side becomes more aware of the mutual advantages to be gained through partnership. Pragmatism and rationalism are just as fundamental to European civilization as are intrinsic human values. After all, previous examples of Europe’s involvement in Russian modernization, from Peter the Great to Stalin, were not based on “common values” either.
In other words, the “common European project” of modernizing Russia, which actually provides for making use of each side’s economic potentials and needs, stands a better chance now. Both Russia and countries across the EU need development impetuses, and they can give them to each other. The de-politicization of their relations, which should instead be based on social and economic priorities, will lay the groundwork for continuing cross-fertilization.