When “Common Space from Lisbon to Vladivostok” Is Impossible: Agenda for a New Model of Russia-EU Relations

For the next several years it will be impossible to formulate such a new strategic goal of Russia-EU relations, which would be shared and endorsed by both sides.

It is very unlikely that the current deadlock of Russia-EU relations could be overcome over the next several years. This deadlock had emerged well before the Ukraine crisis, has far deeper roots, and thus will remain even if the Minsk agreements are fully implemented (which is hardly possible in the short-term prospect). The sides promote incompatible models of Russia-EU relations and of economic and political orders in “Wider Europe” and Eurasia.

Those member-states of the EU and parts of the Eurobureaucracy, who have a constructive attitude towards Russia, advocate an EU-centric model of “Wider Europe” and Eurasia, in which all the European countries including Russia are more or less associated with the EU, fully or partly embrace its normative and regulatory bases and are in fact parts and parcels of an “international community” of the EU. The only dialogue on strategic issues of relations that these constructively oriented member-states and Brussels are ready to conduct with Moscow is the time, nature and tempo of Russia’s return to this model. Whereas more critically oriented towards Russia EU members are reluctant to allow even such a dialogue, and insist on a freezing of relations until Russia and its foreign policy undergo a fundamental change.

Russia regards such a return to the EU-centric model as a non-starter. It talks about equal partnership and equal integration of “Wider Europe’s” two poles – European Union and Eurasian Economic Union, taking into account the already ongoing dialogue on coordinated development of the EEU and Economic Belt of the Silk Road, and sustaining positive baggage of the previous stage of Russia-EU relations (visa dialogue, sectoral dialogues, non-discrimination of Russian citizens in the EU, energy dialogue with the “early warning mechanism”, and so on). In other words, instead of a common economic and human space “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, which would be based entirely on EU rules and standards, Moscow proposes equal integration between the EU and the space “from Shanghai to Kaliningrad”, which is already taking shape. This approach, in its turn, is unacceptable for the EU.

Neither Russia nor the EU are prepared to change their strategies vis-à-vis each other and the “common neighborhood” in the observable future. For this they lack both will and to a big extent capacity. For Russia a return to an EU-centric model looks simply unthinkable in the context of the multipolar world becoming reality, Asia Pacific becoming the center of global economic and political gravity and Moscow’s “turn to Asia” policy finally taking shape. Let alone that such a return would make all the sacrifices Russia deliberately took when it rejected the unsuitable model of relations with the EU, as well all its achievements on Asian and Eurasian directions senseless.

The EU, contrary to the history of its relations with Russia for the last 20 years and despite the changing global landscape, is still convinced, that Russia has simply no other way to develop successful economy and preserve itself as a significant world player, than to integrate into the “international community of the EU”, and that its current policy is self-ruinous economically and politically. Thus, the EU assumes that Russia’s return to the model of relations, which collapsed in 2014, is inevitable.

In addition, it is difficult for Russia and the EU to reach a common vision of “Wider Europe” and Eurasia and to build new relations on its basis, because the prospects of further EU development are all but clear. It is so far very hard to predict, where will its borders lie, what will a distribution of power between the member-states, member-states and institutions look like, who will possess the real authority, could the integration process go back, and so on. As long as the EU doesn’t deal with itself, it will be very hard for it to conduct a dialogue on fundamental questions of the future of Europe and Eurasia either with Russia, or with the other external partners. Its current state of crisis prevents the EU from exceeding the bounds of the previous foreign policy course – even despite its obvious counter-productiveness and even danger, compels it to act by inertia, and pushes it to even greater embrace with the USA, albeit as a junior partner.

Meanwhile the idea of a common economic, human and security space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which has been proclaiming by Russia and the EU since the end of 1980-s and which has been serving as a strategic goal of their relations, is losing political relevance and becoming less and less achievable. Each of the sides is involved in the processes, which exclude creating such a space in the shape and borders as perceived in the previous 20-25 years. Russia is focusing on strengthening of the EEU, implementing its “coordinated development” with the EBSR, and has in general turned to Eurasia and Asia as most priority region. In its turn, the EU is negotiating Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which, when created, will divide it from the non-associated countries, and regards the US as the major economic and political partner.

It is unlikely that the communities emerging around the US and Eurasia will head for coordinated development in the coming decades. On the contrary, they are drifting apart both in the Pacific (Russia and China regard the TPP very critically and promote an alternative model of regional economic order) and in Europe (Russia has turned to Eurasia and China, whereas the EU – towards the US). Besides, these communities’ coordinated development will be impeded by strengthening confrontational components in the relations between their leaders – the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The US-Russian systemic confrontation is hardly to be overcome before the end of the next presidential cycles in both countries, which is 2024. US - China confrontation is likely to strengthen even after that time, especially in the military field, while their economic interdependence might probably start weakening in the nearest years and decades.

Thus, Russia and the EU should for the first time in their history prepare for such a model of relations, which will not focus on building a common space as its strategic purpose, but will instead proceed from their belonging to different political and economic communities.

What kind of agenda of Russia-Europe relations is possible in these conditions? Obviously, it should be of practical nature, separate from strategic issues of their relations and from building “Wider Europe”. For the next several years it will be impossible to formulate such a new strategic goal of Russia-EU relations, which would be shared and endorsed by both sides. At the same time, they are facing multiple challenges from inside and outside of Europe, which, if left unattended, will undermine their security and economy drastically, and which management demands effective relations between Russia and the EU, as well as individual EU member-states.

First, these are problems of European security and a task to prevent a spillover of the current limited Russia-Western confrontation into a full-fledged Cold and especially a “hot” war. This necessitates: resisting further escalation in Ukraine and contributing to the crisis being resolved on the basis of the Minks agreements; strengthening conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms in Europe as a whole, including those of the OSCE; contributing to development and stability of “common neighborhood” countries; preventing a full collapse of arms control system, including nuclear one; and limiting NATO’s military infrastructure expansion in Central, Eastern European and Baltic states, including that of missile defense.

Second, this is a problem of complex and long-term destabilization of the Broader Middle East, which will remain a source of terrorism, Islamic radicalism, migration flows, WMD proliferation, organized crime, civil wars and general instability for Russia and the EU for several decades. The current migration crisis, which has hit the EU, cannot be overcome via migration policy only. It can be remedied only when situation in the region becomes relatively stabilized and when regional players conduct a more responsible policy. This is impossible to achieve without a more robust foreign policy participation of the EU and Russia-EU (including Russia – EU member-states) cooperation.

Third, it is the global split of the world into two political and economic communities and strengthening US-Chinese and US-Russian strategic competition. This split might bring not just a new curtain in Europe (this time not the “iron” one, but no more penetrable), but eventual marginalization of Russia and even more so the EU, their turning into junior partners of China and the US accordingly. It seems impossible to prevent or smooth this global split in the Asia Pacific: the region is steadily turning into the major arena of global confrontation of the XXI century. The only region, where such smoothing might work is Europe.

It is particular important, that for effective collaboration on them Russia needs a strong and integral, not a week and fragmented, European Union. In conditions mentioned above Moscow is not interested in either disintegration or, even less so, dissolution of the EU. Such an outcome would just accelerate the European countries’ drift towards the US, will push them to exacerbating of the conflict with Russia and to regarding the latter as a threat to European security. Finally, it would undermine their capacity to contribute to gradual reduction of instability in the Broader Middle East. On the contrary, a strong, confident and capable EU will provide a restraining impact on the US and will address both the internal and external threats and challenges to European security more responsibly.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.