EU-Russian relations are aggravated by the fact that Europe is facing new challenges, which it cannot respond to, and is becoming increasingly obsessed with its own problems. Nevertheless, it remains a crucial neighbour and partner for Russia. By cooperating with Russia and correlating European and European integrations, the EU could enhance its role in the world of tomorrow.
On June 6, the Valdai Club held its traditional session at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. This time, it was dedicated to relations between Russia and Europe, a topic that might seem inexhaustible, as debates about Russia’s place in Europe and the place of Europe in Russian consciousness have continued for at least two centuries. However, as Fyodor Lukyanov, the Valdai Club’s Research Director, pointed out, these discussions have become somewhat monotonous in the recent years as the two parties are plunged into a crisis of political relations. Russia and Europe stick to their positions and dialogue between them is in fact frozen.
However, the changes which are taking place in Europe and beyond it are heavily influencing the dynamism of EU-Russia relations. A “new Europe” is emerging before our eyes.If in the second half of the twentieth century Western Europe managed to implement an unusually successful integration model, today it is in crisis. The EU has entered an era of profound changes, the social palette and political landscape are changing and traditional parties are losing support, as recent elections to the European Parliament showed.
The role of Europe in the international arena is also changing. The most important trend of our time is that powerful new players come with their own visions of the world order. Today it is Asia, tomorrow, it could be Latin America and Africa. The Eurocentric view of the world has become an anachronism. The current European Union cannot claim to be a global leader, said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's permanent representative to the EU. The task of the EU is to maintain its position in a multipolar world.
Faced with new challenges with no answers, Europe is becoming increasingly concentrated on itself. This is partly the reason why there is no communication between the EU and Russia. As the curious situation with the sudden withdrawal of Austria from the joint conference with the Valdai Club in Vienna showed, the Russian-European dialogue is becoming a hostage to domestic political agendas.
The difficulty for Russia lies in the fact that the European Union itself does not have a single vision of itself and its role in the world. The main fault line runs between those who are in favour of strengthening the main European institutions, and supporters of the strengthening of the EU’s member nation-states. The position of the latter was convincingly presented by Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary.
According to him, the current European Commission was unable to provide adequate responses to the challenges faced by the European Union. “The competitiveness of the EU has declined,” he said. “We allowed illegal immigrants to come in and failed to keep the UK as a member.” The elections to the European Parliament have shown that the status quo no longer exists, Szijjártó said.
In order for the EU to be strong, its member states must be strong, he stressed. And this implies a reliance on national identity as well as cultural, religious and historical heritage. (It should be noted that if among the former socialist countries such views are mainstream, then among the founding members of the European Union, they are considered as a dangerous bias towards nationalism and intolerance).
The EU countries should be guided by national interests in their foreign policy, Szijjártó said. Hungary is a small country that has always lost in conflicts between East and West, and therefore it is in its interest to have a dialogue between them. The dialogue should not only be between Europe and Russia, but also within the framework of Greater Eurasia, hence Budapest is interested in the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.
Such a position has resonance in Russia. According to Vladimir Chizhov, by cooperating with Russia and correlating European and Eurasian integration, the EU will be able not only to preserve its role in the future world, but also to maintain the principle of multilateralism, which has a cult-like following in Brussels. Now, as the permanent representative of Russia to the EU said, relations between the two sides can be characterised as “abnormal”. A number of European politicians encourage this abnormality, distracting the attention of the population from internal problems.
The voices of those who advocate a dialogue with Russia are weak in Europe, and anti-Russian sentiments - especially in some countries – are strong, he said; Mario Mehren, Chairman and CEO of Wintershall DEA agreed. This causes European, and particularly German business to suffer; in Germany, the business sector has always believed that the policy of sanctions against Russia is unproductive. Dimitrios Velanis, adviser to the Greek Prime Minister, expressed his distaste for the sanctions even more unequivocally; according to him, sanctions are "a virus that affects economic and political relations between states". Both the EU and Russia have suffered from them.
Szijjártó also spoke about the sanctions. In his opinion, they did not achieve any economic goals (to weaken the Russian economy) or political ones (to influence Russia in order to resolve the Ukrainian crisis). Moreover, despite the sanctions, trade turnover between Russia and the EU countries such as France, Italy and Germany has grown - but Hungary has just lost again. Indeed, amid such conditions, it is difficult not to think about whether or not European solidarity is so important.
Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said that it is not so much about political solidarity, but about the rules of the game in the world economy, where sanctions are the “new normal”. “There is always a reason for sanctions,” he stressed, adding that is important to ensure that they are not used to gain non-competitive advantages by those who unleash trade wars.
As Fyodor Lukyanov summarized, it is extremely difficult for Russia to communicate with the new Europe. Its political landscape has become fragmented. In the last elections to the European Parliament, three conditional groups have achieved success: "nationalists", "liberals" and "greens". There is nothing in common between them except that they clearly express views which contrast with traditional European politicians, who are unable to answer their voters’ questions about matters that concern them.
Russia would feel comfortable with a strong and centralised EU, Lukyanov said. Perhaps it would be a difficult partner, but at least Moscow would understand whom it is dealing with. At the same time, it would be good if each of the countries had a wider space for decision-making. Now it is impossible to resolve issues of Russian-European relations either centrally or separately.Nevertheless, even if the EU is getting absorbed in its own problems, for Russia it will always remain the most important neighbour and partner. Russia, as Andrey Bystritskiy, chairman of the Valdai Discussion Club, recalled, is both part of Europe and, in a sense, a “different player”. But only by dealing with the “other” one can a system of values be built and a formula be found for sustainable development.