Thursday, November 01, 2007

EU-Russia: no more ambitions

by Katinka Barysch

The CER organised a conference on EU-Russia relations in Brussels on October 30th, together with ‘Russia Profile’ magazine. I have been to dozens of these EU-Russia meetings in the last couple of years. More often than not, they turn nasty, with the Russians making angry accusations and the Europeans going into a sulk. At our seminar, the atmosphere was strangely subdued.

No doubt, this was partly due to the professionalism of the panellists. People like Vladimir Chizhov, Konstantin Kosachev, Helga Schmid and Christian Cleutinx make a living addressing big problems without sounding alarming (details of the event can be found here

But diplomatic protocol was not the only reason for the lull. A sense of resignation has descended over EU-Russia relations. We have quietly discarded our lofty ambition to build a “strategic partnership based on common values”. Today we just want to get along, somehow.

The same lack of expectations turned last week’s EU-Russia summit in Mafra into a success of sorts. The Portuguese presidency of the EU did not even try to unblock talks on a new EU-Russia treaty. The change of government in Poland has increased the chances that the dispute over meat exports will be resolved and that Warsaw will lift its veto. But neither Russia nor the EU has much enthusiasm for a new treaty. What for? Instead of a shared vision, there is uncertainty: in Russia over its future leadership and direction, and in the EU over whether it can forge a common position among 27 member-states.

Both sides are groping for a path through this period of uncertainty. “Realism” is the term most widely used to describe today’s bilateral relationship. One participant at our seminar called for a “partnership of patience”, another referred to a “carefully crafted holding pattern”.

This total collapse of ambition was probably inevitable. Once Russia started to turn away from pluralist democracy, the EU’s constant talk about ‘common values’ simply antagonised Moscow. The EU ended up frustrated and disappointed. Bitterness grew on both sides. The political rhetoric became so shrill that it started to endanger practical co-operation in energy, investment or security.

Now both sides are trying to reassure each other that things are not that bad after all. Look, trade is growing by 30 per cent a year. EU companies are doing good business in Russia. Russians are coming to the EU in record numbers. The Union is allowed to observe mediation attempts in Transdniestria. Micro-successes are still possible: we now have an ‘early warning mechanism’ in case of disruptions to energy supplies, and a new cultural dialogue. Process matters.

But can the EU and Russia really afford to put their relationship on ice and wait for better days? World politics intrudes in the current lull. Russia has blocked EU-backed plans for Kosovo independence. It is against tougher sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Russia behaves as if it didn’t need friends. But when it looks around the world – at a rising China, a disillusioned US, an unstable Middle East – it must conclude that the European countries are still its easiest and most reliable partners.

Vis-à-vis Russia, the EU looks divided, confused and often weaker than it is. That is partly because Russia forces the EU to clarify its own objectives. Can the EU become a more powerful international player while at the same time upholding its founding principles of democracy and human rights? Since different member countries have different answers, the EU tries to avoid the question.

Russia also puts the EU’s energy plans to the test. While paying lip service to a common energy policy, EU member-states are rushing to strike bilateral deals with Gazprom. Energy was supposed to be an area where the EU and Russia have clear common interests. But now the Russians complain about a ‘Gazprom clause’ in the Commission’s latest liberalisation package: state-owned foreign companies would not be allowed to buy gas pipelines in the EU, unless their governments agreed to also give European companies better access to their home markets.

Russia is not well placed to lecture the Europeans on energy market liberalisation. But Moscow has a point when asking the EU what it means by reciprocity. If the concept degenerates from a means for mutual openness to a new protectionist tool, it will do nothing to alleviate EU concerns about Russian underinvestment in its gas fields.

The energy debate shows that the shift from ‘values’ to ‘interests’ in EU-Russia relations can only go so far. Values – or more plainly, the way we see things – determine everything we do. When people and politicians in the EU and Russia talk about energy security, they mean different things. The same holds true for democracy, and other terms that allegedly describe the core objectives of our relationship.

I was an early advocate of the EU focusing less on ‘common values’ and more on mutual interests, on areas where practical co-operation is feasible and desirable (see
But I am also the first one to admit that we have come full circle. Ultimately, the EU and Russia need to agree what they want to get out of their interaction.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Russia, can you blame them for having suspicions and making accusations. Just look around its borders, i bet they started to feel encircled. The big problem is that unipolar vision of Cheney/Bush, unipolarism also triggers the problem of Mackinders heartland that the world has faced for a hundred years now. I think Putin felt a need to use their huge energy resources as a lever to secure a more viable geopolitical position. Brzezinski revealed in a New York Council on Foreign Relations Foreign Affairs article 1997: What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America`s global primacy. It is quite natural Russia acts knowing this and sees neighbouring countries becoming NATO members, it scares them. Scared bears usually become dangerous, just as scared people do. The other union of states, the american, would probably have acted even more suspicous, agressive and even protectionistic if the oppisite where true; a unipolaristic Russia with friends encircling those american states. The US must stop its reckless foreign policy, it can only lead to something very nasty, especially taking into account the world currency freeride that could end if it goes just a little too far. I think the globe soon will be fed up about that freeride.