It is not obvious that Russia and China want the European Union to be an independent and active global player. In the next five years, Europe will be vulnerable and emotionally unstable because of the election of top EU leaders from among openly incompetent politicians or respected leaders with limited access to the necessary resources. Russia and China should use this opportunity to consolidate their strategies and approaches toward Europe, which is a geographic neighbor, a major economic partner and, sometimes, a source of political concern for the two great powers.
Despite its economic scale and market attractiveness, modern Europe is not an influential global player. The reason lies in the increasing inability of the leading EU countries to forget about their national interests and their leaders’ personal preferences in order to strengthen the EU institutions and their global prestige. Without close integration supported by the people, there are fewer chances than even in the mid-20th century that Europe’s opinions on regional issues, not to mention global matters, will be respected.
The 2018-2019 political season is ending with fierce bargaining over the appointment of political leaders to the EU top positions. The most important of these posts, or rather the only ones that carry practical weight, are the posts of President of the European Commission and President of the European Council. Both posts will be held by individuals with questionable achievements at the national level. They were nominated in a secret deal between the leading EU heads of state and government who had little interest in the candidates’ personal ambitions and talents.
The political outcomes of this for the next five years are weak EU institutions and an imbalance of influence in favor of the leading EU states whose top officials have clearly indicated their unwillingness to cede at least part of their political clout and popularity to Brussels. Therefore, it is unlikely that the European integration processes will overcome their system-wide crisis. This is very sad, but the foreign policy consequences are more important for Russia and China, which are using their opportunities to formulate a constructive alternative to the Western policy that does not offer any global public benefits.
Let us begin by assessing the overall strategic consequences of the weakening of the European integration institutions. It is believed that such a weakening and Europe’s hypothetical “navel-gazing” are a chance for its partners’ to enjoy relative tranquility and comfort. But this does not seem to be the case. Rather, this can have the opposite effect. Russia-EU relations gradually deteriorated over the past 10-15 years when Brussels was growing weaker while some of the EU countries became more influential. Europe’s internal weakness has led to hyperactivity on the foreign policy issues of “secondary” importance or where the consequences of destructive actions do not threaten the security of the EU and its leading countries. One can look down on the EU attempts to play an active part in the regions of strategic importance for Russia or China, namely, the western part of the post-Soviet space, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. But taken together with the other destabilizing factors, even the weakest EU attempts to sow discord between China/Russia and their common neighbors can have a major negative effect.
Moreover, the weakness of the EU as an institution will inevitably give such external players as the United States more chances to influence the policy of individual EU countries based on these players’ personal interests. The middle income countries and Russia’s traditional antagonists can use this to strengthen their influence on the EU’s policy. The leading countries will have to show more respect for the opinions of small and medium-sized countries, consolidating them on the principle of the lowest common denominator. In short, the overall weakening of European integration at the present level of institutional development can be seen as a factor that will most likely complicate its regional policy. Thus, there is little hope for taking Europe out of the equation. We need to consider a proactive policy toward the EU and instruments of implementing it in the next five years.
This means that the EU and its institutions will become even less constructive partners for Russia than in the past 10-15 years when their relations were deteriorating rapidly. Unable to become stronger at the European level and feeling subordinate to the leading EU countries, Brussels will try to make up for its weakness by taking foreign policy actions. Since Brussels is not in a position to show excessive independence toward the United States, as this would be too risky, its foreign policy will be most likely focused on Russia and China. At the same time, the leading EU countries’ desire to score foreign policy points regardless of the common interests of all members of the European integration can give new diplomatic opportunities to Russia.
The new Europe might also try to restrict China’s peaceful emergence in the EU’s financial markets and companies, and to make use of the colossal opportunities of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, Europe, which is now lacking self-confidence, will more likely sacrifice good relations with China to progress in other spheres, for example, in relations with Washington. It would be unwise for China to try to woo a weak Europe by financial and economic means, because the economic prosperity of the people is a matter of very little consequence for European bureaucracy, especially in its current state.
What would be the best policy in this situation? The new EU is a chance for its external partners, in this case Russia and China, to revise their policy toward Europe. It should not be connected to the current period in European integration or the EU’s ability/inability to be a reliable partner. Ultimately, Europe is not a long-term foreign policy touchstone whose inner state should determine the modality of Russia’s and China’s relations with it. Europe is only a trading partner and a source of certain financial, technological and diplomatic resources for them. This is why the question about the future of relations with Europe that is based on the analysis of its internal state appears to be methodologically unsound. The current state of the EU is a chance, especially for Russia, to overcome its centuries-long intellectual dependence on Europe and to revise its policy toward the West that focused on the resources and interests of its partners, both the European powers in the 16th to 19th centuries and the EU in the 20th and 21st centuries. Strategically, this could even help stabilize relations with Europe.
Russia and China should start developing their bilateral relations and cooperation in Europe irrespective of their individual ties with Europe. They should try to serve above all their own interests and to coordinate bilateral actions that could reflect these interests. And lastly, they should not make the formats offered to them by Europe a factor in bilateral relations. For example, the illusive opportunity of a new Russia-EU agreement must not be seen as a factor in the much more important for Russia relations with China.