New EU Leaders and Russia’s Interests

The elections of the new EU leaders, which followed the elections to the European Parliament, have both independent significance and are a good indicator of trends within the United Europe and its foreign policy. From our point of view, the elections proceeded surprisingly smoothly and represented another victory for EU bureaucracy and its “shadow struggle” methods. There was no serious visible conflict. Let’s recall that in Sweden, in Latvia and in Estonia, we observed states functioning without a government for weeks or months; the parties of the respective countries could not agree among themselves. Obviously, the search for an agreement at the interstate level is much more complicated.

At the same time, a compromise solution for 2019 was reached relatively quickly, and it is simply impossible to compare it with the situation that took place in 2014. Five years ago Jean-Claude Juncker, a politician from Luxembourg and the head of the largest faction of the European Parliament, satisfied almost everyone and was promoted to the position of European Commission President. Now, however, the situation has changed, as there is no longer a leading faction in the European parliament.

Donald Tusk, who is the current President of the European Council, reiterated several times that it was important to maintain a balance that takes into account the party spectrum of the European Parliament, the geographical position and size of the participating countries, as well as the gender factor. The last one yielded a brilliant success for its proponents – two of the four key EU positions will be occupied by women. The other decisions are purely bureaucratic and very conditional. The principle of “economics and politics for cronies” works well. By becoming “cronies” in administrative structures, new leaders receive various kinds of preferences. Alliances arise within national and supranational authorities with business elites, based on political or clan considerations. In Estonia, this is called “semukapitalism”, that is, “crony capitalism” – formal compliance with the rules governing the functioning of political and economic institutions, coupled with a legally unpunished system of personal agreements.

This model took its toll on Central and Eastern Europe. Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis regretted that no politician from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) received an important post in the European Union after several days of negotiations. It is important to note that the candidacy of former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite for the position of head of the EC presidency was not considered seriously. Even though she had bureaucratic experience, her coarse anti-Russian language was too much for her to be approved. “In this case, it is clear that the geographical balance has not been maintained,” said the Prime Minister, expressing the de facto opinion of all the CEE countries, from Estonia to Poland and from Romania to Latvia.

Why did this happen? First, the CEE states do not know how to negotiate among themselves. To cite Professor Busygina’s thesis, the ‘Baltic Entente-2’ (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and the Visegrad Group have had trouble implementing the ‘Coalition within a Coalition’ principle. Efforts to work in unison while observing less-than-ideal democratic procedures may work well in the West of Europe; however, they’re absent in the East. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, let’s say that while the experienced European wolves act as a pack, the lone, Eastern Europe wolf implements the “everyone for himself” principle. The results are well known.

Regarding relations between the new EU leadership and Russia, we should not allow ourselves to give in to pessimism. Headlines in many Russian media outlets proclaiming things like “The new EU leadership is hostile to Russia” are astonishing. First, the people elected by the Council of Europe are not yet de jure and de facto leaders of the European Union. Accordingly, in this capacity, they cannot yet distinguish themselves by exhibiting a dislike towards Russia. Second, the criticism of Russia exhibited by national authorities, such as Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, won’t automatically persist after they’ve been elevated to a qualitatively higher post.

Anti-Russian rhetoric is abundant in Western Europe, but if we assume that the difference between rhetoric and real action is directly determined by the effectiveness of the source, then it must be noted that said rhetoric is emanating from Warsaw and Vilnius, but not Vienna or Berlin.

The principles established by outgoing EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, with all their lapidarity, are being implemented. In 2016, Mogherini and the foreign ministers of the EU countries approved a strategy for relations with Russia. It is based on five principles:

• fulfilment of the terms of the Minsk-2 agreement on Ukraine;

• strengthening relations with the Eastern Partnership countries and Central Asian countries;

• strengthening the EU’s resilience, including reducing its dependence on Russia in the energy sector;

• restoration of cooperation with Russia in “some selected areas”, for example, on Iran or the North Korean problem;

• support for the development of civil society in Russia and “person-to-person contacts and exchanges”.

The consensus opinion of experts is that the policy of the European Union towards Russia is unlikely to change. Yes, we see the desire of individual countries to develop more flexible cooperation with Russia, but there is also an antagonistic movement in Poland and the Baltic states, which aim to toughen sanctions, and to reduce any forms of contact.

The main problem in the dialogue between Russia and the EU is not the crisis in Ukraine, but rather that Russia has effectively positioned itself as an independent decision-making authority. The EU will not be able to change this situation, but Russia will also have very limited opportunities to influence the EU’s position.

And, finally, perhaps the most important thesis. My colleague Timofei Bordachev, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club and a member of the Supervisory Board of the Russian Association of Baltic Studies, rightly said: “The EU leaders’ new teams consist of second and third tier politicians, which are better known by their proximity to national leaders or showmanship than for their real achievements or comprehensive ideas. Still, there weren’t really grounds to expect anything different.” (A Europe of Homelands and New European Sclerosis). Of course, we agree with this, but what does this mean for Russia? It seems that this result should suit Moscow. What would happen if Benito Mussolini became the speaker, Konrad Adenauer (a great “friend” of the USSR) placed in charge of foreign policy, and Margaret Thatcher (whose “penchant” for compromise, diplomacy and peacefulness entered the annals of British history) put in charge of the European Commission?

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