Europe’s Decline and Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?

Russia should not be in a hurry to meddle in European affairs, especially given that interference of this kind has a poor track record. Despite the hostile actions by the EU and some of its member states in recent years, Europe should not be viewed as an enemy. What makes Europe strong is its diversity. Russia’s policy towards the Old World should also be diversified.

Europe is one of Russia’s most important neighbors and partners. Russia is and will remain in the decades to come the most populous European nation. Historically, Europe has always been for Russia, as well as other neighbors, either a source of threats or a source of motivation and the means for progress. In fact, it has never been easy for anyone to be Europe’s neighbor or partner. Europe has always required vigilance and diplomatic skill, as it has always posed a threat. But it has also nurtured outstanding achievements of the spirit and the mind. Only Chinese civilization can be compared with Europe in terms of the spiritual, intellectual and technological advances bestowed on humanity.

In the second half of the 20th century, European integration became an example for the whole world of how sovereign countries can settle disputes in a peaceful manner and pursue their own national ambitions through cooperation, not competition. It is the sole example of this kind so far. Europe has also played a pivotal role in Russia’s turn toward Asia in an effort to build long-term stable relationships with China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian and Eurasian countries. Europe is an integral part of Greater Eurasia, which makes further development of Russian-Chinese cooperation unthinkable without the extensive involvement of European nations.

Over the course of the 25 years since the establishment of the European Union and the emergence of Russia as a sovereign state, their relationship has been marked by ups and downs, from shared optimism in the first half of the 1990s to the lassitude of the end of the decade, from disillusionment and a few final attempts to breathe new life in the relationship in the early 2000s to the discord and competition that has gained momentum in recent years. However, through all these years there was one thing that remained unchanged: Europe has always been a strong, relatively united actor that proactively pursued dialogue. The EU institutions in Brussels were always consistent in their commitment to put forward new projects and initiatives, create negotiation platforms and shape the agenda across the board. It is the EU that proposed signing the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between the European Union and the Russian Federation in the early 1990s, creating four Common Spaces in 2005, and signing the EU-Russia Partnership for Modernization in 2009. All Russia had to do was accept or turn down the European proposals.

The situation has now changed, creating a more challenging agenda for Russia. In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia will no longer be able to rely on Europe or play the role of subordinate, if not junior, partner. Moscow, on the contrary, should now be the one offering EU countries and institutions political and economic projects and initiatives based on mutual interest. For Russia, this will be as much of a challenge as European assertiveness has been in the last two decades.

These changes are mostly internal European in nature. Europe has had the misfortune of facing one crisis after another in the last 10 to 12 years. First came the constitutional crisis in 2005-2008, followed by the economic and monetary crisis that started in 2008, and the solidarity crisis in 2015-2016. Each wave of crisis brought about subtle institutional improvements, while also sapping some of the power and energy of the European project and undermining the faith of Europeans in the viability and benefits of collective action. It must be acknowledged that the European Union is in the worst shape since the Eurosclerosis of the 1960s-1970s. The crisis it is going through is not just systemic, but existential.

At the same time, in economic terms the EU remains one of the three key players in international affairs alongside the US and China. Russia with all its military might has a long way to go before it can reach a comparable level of economic development. Some EU countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, as well as in Central and Northern Europe, are achieving spectacular economic results. Europe remains one of the most sought-after partners for investment and trade. However, having common regulations also creates obstacles. For instance, poorer Eastern European countries are seeking to develop investment partnerships with China, bypassing EU institutions and standards. For this purpose they have created the 16+1 mechanism (11 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, 5 Balkan states + China) without Brussels playing any significant role. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the overall European economy is in good shape.

However, Europe’s economic achievements cannot offset its political slump. Even though some EU countries are successful and important players in the global economy, more and more observers view Europe and the European Union in general as the “sick man of Eurasia.” The main cause lies in the relative erosion of pan-European institutions and collective decision-making mechanisms, and the unprecedented loss of appeal of the EU both within its borders and beyond. Member states are less and less interested in the European project, which is a dangerous thing, since there is no way of telling whether European countries will act responsibly once freed from the restrictive integration mechanisms. Accordingly, it is now important for Russia to support the EU as a project, while keeping a close eye on developments in its member states so as to establish closer ties with them.

It took decades to devise a system that enabled stakeholders to negotiate, coordinate their interests and resolve technical issues related to integration behind the scenes, but now it has come under threat. Referendums have become commonplace, each time calling into question the European future of one country or another. What is even more alarming is that the crisis of the EU as an institution and cooperation framework undermines European unity. When integration was working, from the early 1980s until the first half of the 2000s, Europe and the European Union were synonymous, and European leaders were proactive in promoting this vision. Now that the EU is half-paralyzed, many think that the whole European continent is suffering. Although EU countries like Germany, France and Italy are still important players in the global economy and global politics, their military and political role remains insignificant, which is attributable to sacrifices they made in the course of European integration.

Political events in the United States, with the election of a president who struggles to understand the point of the EU or even take an interest in it, are certain to play a big role. In other words, the European Union is not part of the new US leader’s worldview. This makes it impossible to create the Berlin-Washington world order that the EU seeks, i.e. a Trans-Atlantic region that is essentially a homogenous US-led cultural, economic and military space with Germany also playing a decisive role. The creation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as an important political project has been postponed indefinitely, although TTIP’s economic elements can still be implemented through an EU-Canada trade deal.

Brexit marks a turning point in European history. One of the largest European countries behind Russia, Germany and France, namely Great Britain will no longer be part of EU institutions, which is sure to change the balance of power within the union. There will be nobody to act as a counterweight to an increasingly powerful and determined Germany. And it will be extremely challenging for the next French administration to put the degrading French-German integration engine back on track. Even if a moderate candidate were to win the presidential election in spring 2017, he or she would have to adopt some of the ideas and slogans of the right-wing National Front party. This could make the task of reinforcing European integration even more daunting. At the very least, it would make it harder to resolve the issue of mass migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, which is currently the most vexing political issue for the EU. After all, the migration crisis poses a challenge to European states and societies on many levels, and it is not clear whether the EU can overcome it in a unified way.

Given all these sources of uncertainty, the principle that each crisis makes European integration stronger may not hold this time. Europe is clearly going through a crisis, and there are no prospects for the EU to reclaim its ability to effectively address the development tasks facing member states. This adds more urgency to the debate on the attitude of key global players and neighbors toward Europe and the issues it faces. While the standpoint of the US has been quite clear so far, Russia, China, Iran and other key Eurasian powers have yet to clearly articulate their perspective. Maybe they should be honest about how they intend to build a relationship with a struggling Europe.

Russia may be tempted to try and pit EU countries and institutions against one another in order to take advantage of the EU’s internal woes, especially since Russia has serious and reasonable grounds for doing so. It simply had to respond to what Brussels did in Ukraine during the crisis and coup in the winter of 2013-2014, its economic war against Crimea and Russian companies in general, and a number of other actions. Even if Russian officials were actually in contact with radical EU parties that oppose the establishment, it would be understandable.

However, Russia should not be in a hurry to meddle in European affairs, especially given that interference of this kind has a poor track record. Despite the hostile actions by the EU and some of its member states in recent years, Europe should not be viewed as an enemy. Instead, Russia should be committed and consistent in its efforts to further develop and strengthen relations with all European partners. What makes Europe strong is its diversity. Russia’s policy towards the Old World should also be diversified. We tried to articulate the basic tenets of this policy in the Valdai Club paper published in the spring of 2016. At this stage, it is important to specify how Russia should deal with Europe as it struggles to overcome its internal crisis. What political and economic projects can Russia offer its Western neighbors? In the next three to five years, the EU is expected to be restrained in its actions for a number of reasons. A lot can be done during this period in terms of Russia’s relations with the EU, as well as with individual EU members. For that, Russia will need to show considerable patience and put forward as many initiatives as possible.

Russia should already be working to develop a proactive European strategy. This strategy could rely on solid principles and an open agenda in all possible areas of cooperation. In any case, waiting for the EU to respond to Russia’s initiatives as an institution should not be an option. Concrete projects should target specific partners, whether European institutions, governments, private companies, business associations, or civil society groups, without seeking to create antagonism with Brussels or its battered bureaucracy.

The active Russia-EU sectoral dialogues should not be terminated so much as adapted to meet current needs. Unfortunately, by 2014 these dialogues had mostly evolved into purely technical discussions between the European Commission and the Russian Government. It may be time now for Russia to focus these dialogues on real market players in sectors like energy, transport, investment and finance. All these developments should be coordinated with the agenda for Russia’s and the EAEU’s relations with China.

It may be appropriate to revive visa-free travel negotiations with at least some EU countries, if not all of them. Government-level consultations can start right away, taking into account the stance of specific countries on issues of major political importance for Russia. In fact, visa-free travel may help overcome stereotypes and suspicion that have built up over recent years. It is also up to Russia to determine the role EU institutions will play in the new Russian strategy toward a weaker Europe. EU institutions should not be ignored completely, even though there are serious barriers that prevent the European Commission from restoring its relations with Russia. Together with its EAEU partners, Russia should devise and submit to the EU a new roadmap for EAEU-EU dialogue, with Kazakhstan and Belarus making a significant contribution to this initiative. Politicians and experts should take into account Europe-related matters in their dialogue with China and other Asian partners. And this barely scratches the surface of what is possible.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.