There is no denying that the European Union and Russia need each other to prosper in an increasingly turbulent world. The EU has singled out Russia, by far its largest neighbour and its third most important trading partner, as a “strategic partner”. Meanwhile, Moscow sees Brussels as indispensable to its own economic and technological modernisation. And as Europe has now given up on attempts to change Russia politically, the business-first approach of many member states bodes well for the kind of pragmatism Igor Ivanov calls for.
Ivanov sees it as worrisome that Russia and the EU find themselves on divergent trajectories. The eurozone crisis has pushed external relations off its agenda and made the EU more introspective. Economic hardship is limiting appetite for all-out economic liberalisation, especially with a large country like Russia, which should be the cornerstone of a new agreement with Moscow. On the other hand, the multilateral route to integration could be the answer. Russia’s recent accession to the World Trade Organisation offers an opportunity to show it really has a commitment to the principles of free trade and to deepening interdependence.
But how much time does Russia really have for the EU? Last year, a European Council on Foreign Relations argued in a paper called “Dealing with a Post-BRIC Russia” that the country faces internal challenges, ranging from instability in the Caucasus to migration that all tend to focus attention inwards. On top of that there is growing middle-class discontent, as seen in the recent demonstrations against President Putin’s return to power.
But interaction continues and Einbindung, or closer bonding, remains the EU’s approach to Russia, in line with Ivanov’s prescription. Yet the long-standing obstacles still seem as salient as ever. Fundamentally they boil down to the question of who would set the terms for closer EU-Russia integration? Russia pursues its independent and assertive foreign policy having freed itself from what it saw as western tutelage in previous post-Soviet years, and Putin’s renewed leadership is likely to reinforce that. At the same time, the EU promotes a model that is based on rules and legal templates that are non-negotiable. It also places limits on governments and their industrial “national champions” seeking access to the Single Market. A case in point is the investigation launched by the European Commission against Gazprom for breaking competition rules in a number of member states. The Kremlin’s nervous reaction to the probe is hardly encouraging. In addition, there are the effects of the EU’s Third Energy Package whose goal is to diversity gas supplies away from Russia, and which is now firmly part of EU law. Russian policymakers and pundits often argue that it is a relationship based on equality, but it is clear that if EU member states act in concert they have enormous clout, even over an issue like energy.
All this poses the question of what Russia’s red lines are in accommodating the EU? In the past, Russia had the perfect solution by ignoring Brussels and cutting deals with national governments in, say, Berlin, Paris or Rome. Yet the idea of a return to 19th century geopolitics in a wider Europe would be an illusion. The Brussels institutions matter, and they are able to amplify the voices of Russia-sceptics in central and eastern Europe.
This is not to suggest that the bi-lateral option is off the table. The euro crisis has led to the re-nationalisation of EU countries’ foreign policies, especially where security affairs are concerned. Russia may or may not capitalise on this trend. At present, Moscow finds itself on opposing sides with the major defence players in the EU on a number of war and peace issues, particularly the conflict in Syria. But if that gap can be narrowed so a common understanding emerges, that might have a positive spillover effect not just on bi-lateral relations but eventually on Russia’s place in Europe.
Dimitar Bechev is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Dimitar.Bechev@ecfr.eu