For quite a long time, Russia, like many other countries, had no opportunity to see Europe for what it is. However, in the new historical era we will not have to recycle old myths and long-standing illusions that we often created ourselves, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
After initially keeping a low profile during the acute military-political confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the European Union suddenly surprised the world in the latter half of June with more important decisions than the approval of yet another package of sanctions against Moscow. First, the land transit problem between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad dramatically worsened as part of the EU economic war on Russia. Second, at a June 23 summit, the leaders of the EU countries agreed to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. Although neither is likely to have significant or truly dangerous consequences for the time being, these actions provide an excellent opportunity to reflect the nature of the EU, its role in Europe’s development and prospects.
This is of particular interest because European integration has become one of the most mythologised topics in international affairs. This is no surprise – the relatively stable and long-term cooperation of such a large group of states is highly unusual for international politics. But it inevitably gives rise to a number of hypotheses about the emergence of this phenomenon and its peculiarities.
The first, most enduring myth rests on the assumption that the EU is a peaceful project that, by its very nature, cannot be used for aggressive action beyond its borders. In effect, this is a simple extrapolation of the rules and norms of interstate relations to their relations with the outside world. Indeed, European integration did emerge at a time when a military solution to disputes between its members did not appear possible.
But the sequence is all important – the founding countries were already incapable of fighting each other before they created an association with additional opportunities for developing relations in the framework of law and institutions.
When the first institutions of European integration emerged, West European countries were still reeling from the greatest military cataclysm in history. Moreover, two of them – Germany and Italy – were not actually in charge of their domestic and foreign policy. Both countries were under full or partial foreign occupation and therefore could not even physically consider a military option one of the tools of their foreign policy as regards their neighbours. Formally one of the victorious countries in WWII, France was also dependent on the United States, which was the only country that could guarantee France’s sovereignty against the looming threat of being swallowed from the east by the victorious USSR.
There is even less justification to claim that European integration was intended to improve relations with third countries via cooperation. In general, immediately after the creation of the communities, one of the main goals of their foreign policy was to restore the positions of their members in Third World countries that had just rid themselves of colonial dependence. The EEC’s first trade agreement was signed with a group of former French colonies in West Africa and was aimed at preserving the economic positions of the former parent state in this region.
Subsequently, the member countries charged their institutions in Brussels with other important tasks: oppose the USSR in the economic arena; contain the development of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) countries; coordinate formal and informal sanctions against the USSR and its allies; and ultimately undermine the CMEA’s integrity by signing separate trade agreements with its individual members. This is exactly why the EEC persistently opposed the signing of a general agreement with the CMEA or the USSR despite their urging until the latter half of the 1980s when the impending collapse of the Eastern bloc had become a likely prospect.
There are no grounds at all to call the EU a “peaceful project” after the end of the Cold War. In fact, the recent collision over Kaliningrad transit was one of the consequences of the EU’s activities in that historical period. After the collapse of the Soviet sphere of influence and breakup of the USSR, the West European countries began to rather aggressively establish control over Eastern Europe, while never considering the interests of Russia, their biggest partner in the East. Now nobody even conceals the fact that the EU expanded to the detriment of Russian interests, not to mention the policy the EU adopted after 2003 as regards the states that emerged along the perimeter of Russia in the western part of the former USSR. The ultimatum contained in “the EU’s peaceful project” for Ukraine in 2013 was one of the most important factors in triggering the Ukrainian crisis.
The second important myth is linked with the EU’s expansion to include new members. For a rather long time, there was a dominant view that any increase in the number of member countries was the result of a rational calculation based on an objective assessment of the ability of this or that country to meet a certain “gold standard.” But his was not the case. With the exception of the accession of Denmark and the United Kingdom to the European communities in 1973, all other waves of expansion were not based on the economic readiness of candidate members. This applies to Greece that joined the EU in 1981 and even more so, to Spain and Portugal, which became its members in 1986. It is possible to say with some reservations that the accession of Austria, Sweden and Finland to the EU in 1995 was not accompanied by any big differences in the level of socioeconomic development.
However, the following large expansion to Eastern Europe, as well as to Cyprus and Malta was a strictly political project. The preservation of economic harmony within the EU was out of the question. Therefore, it is possible to regard the granting of candidate status to Ukraine, which may not even exist in five or seven years, and Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, as the logical continuation of the road on which the West European countries embarked 40 years ago when they invited economically backward Greece to join their ranks.
Overall, we are seeing that European integration has always been aimed at resource extraction from new territories and consolidation of US influence in Europe. Brexit and Britain’s decades-long special position in the integration structure was possible owing to its much stronger bilateral relationship with the United States.
Finally, the third myth of European integration, which is widespread in Russia, concerns its legal and institutional character. Indeed, in several decades the EU has established a ramified system of its own legal standards and institutions, which creates a powerful illusion of resolving vital issues by the force of law, not by the law of force. However, we should not forget that all decisions in the EU are based on the relative power (demographic and economic) of the individual member countries. In this sense, the biggest countries have free rein to implement what they considered politically expedient. In other words, there can be no standards or rules in the EU that do not accommodate the interests of such countries as Germany and France first and foremost. This has become particularly clear in the past 15 years when most decisions were made directly through intergovernmental bargaining while the job of EU institutions was merely to process them legally.
To sum up, it is possible to say that the current circumstances are allowing us to see much clearer the real nature of the phenomenon to the west of our borders. Even if economic and political relations with the EU countries are restricted in the next few years, a better understanding of how their association develops will allow us to more accurately assess its historical prospects. For quite a long time, Russia, like many other countries, had no opportunity to see Europe for what it is. However, in the new historical era we will not have to recycle old myths and long-standing illusions that we often created ourselves.