Getting Rid of Illusions: How Russia and Europe Learned to Interact After the 2014 ‘Watershed’
Gorchakov Fund, Moscow, Iakovoapostol'skii pereulok 10/1
List of speakers

Last Friday, the Valdai Discussion Club and the Gorchakov Foundation held a joint discussion in Moscow, dedicated to Russian and European views on the changes taking place in the European Union. Questions were raised about the EU’s mission in the modern world, as well as the prospects for interaction between the two sides. 

While Russia considers the EU one of the most important parties it deals with in terms of foreign policy, the EU sees Russia as a “strategic challenge”, whatever that means. The mutual attraction between the two key world players is great, but their mutual repulsion is also palpable. At the same time, the EU as a political project is in crisis, and problems within the bloc have a much higher priority for it than relations with Russia. Amid such circumstances, statesmen might be wise to adhere to the principle behind the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors, “do no harm”, in devising a policy for dealing with each other. These conclusions were made by participants in the discussion held on October 25 at the Gorchakov Foundation as part of the Ninth scientific and educational programme “Dialogue for the Future – 2019”. 

University of Pisa professor Andrea Giannotti, Executive Director and Vice President of the Institute of Eurasian Studies, offered to take a look at how the context has changed in which European integration is taking place. He recalled that the source of the drive for a supranational entity was the idea of overcoming the rivalry between France and Germany. Later, other countries of Western Europe were drawn into its orbit, and over time, the European Union became an undeniable symbol of success. But it was precisely in those years, when it seemed that it had reached the pinnacle of its influence and attractiveness as a civilizational model, that the seeds of impending upheavals were sown. EU enlargement to the east created new challenges, Euroscepticism intensified in the countries of “old Europe”, and most importantly – the European Union was not ready for the economic crisis. “There is no word ‘crisis’ in European treaties,” Giannotti emphasised. “They do not take into account the crisis as a systemic economic situation, since they proceeded from the prospect of endless economic growth.” 

As a result, the European Union is too inward-looking. Europe’s political landscape is changing, said Sabine Fischer, Head of Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Studies (SWP). Traditional political parties are fading into the background. The popularity of right-wing and green parties is growing. There is a polarisation and fragmentation of politics in Europe. In more and more countries, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parties to form coalitions and to create governments. 

But at the same time, the strengthening of anti-European sentiments has led to the mobilisation of pro-European forces, Fischer emphasised. “Europe remains a crucial topic of intra-European debate,” she said. And this is a factor that is underestimated in Russia. 

As for relations between Russia and the EU, they, according to Fisher, began to deteriorate in the late 1990s. The reasons for this are the frustration of Europe over the political processes taking place in Russia, Russia’s dissatisfaction with Western interference in the internal affairs of the post-Soviet countries, and especially NATO’s activity, including the 1999 military operation against Yugoslavia. But 2014 became a watershed, when due to the conflict in Ukraine, the EU took the initiative and froze all cooperation with Russia at the institutional level, and mutual sanctions became the new reality in relations between Moscow and Brussels. 

Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, spoke about the role of sanctions. According to him, a distinctive feature of the Russian-European sanctions war is that sanctions cause approximately the same damage to both sides. In this sense, the European sanctions are less effective than the American ones; however, neither set of sanctions has led to the stated goal of changing the policies of the countries against which they are imposed. It is important that the EU does not proceed with the escalation of sanctions. “This was well demonstrated by the reaction to the events in Salisbury and the Kerch Strait,” said Timofeev. “The EU countries do not want to apply more sanctions than the ones contained in the ‘Ukrainian package’.” At the same time, for Europe sanctions are of great political importance, being an expression of European unity, he added. That is why individual countries may express a negative attitude towards sanctions against Russia, but regularly vote for their extension. 

Russia, in turn, is sceptical about the idea of ​​a single EU foreign policy, said Alexander Orlov, former Russian ambassador to France and executive secretary of the Trianon Dialogue forum. According to him, Russia needs to focus on the development of bilateral relations, remembering that the decisive role in the EU is played not by a supranational body – the European Commission, but by the European Council, which brings together the heads of state and government. 

The role of leaders and their personal preferences is becoming more significant in world politics. Andrea Giannotti lamented that today there are no longer titans such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Palmiro Togliatti or Margaret Thatcher. All of them, despite their different political views, were people of high culture, he stressed, and this is in stark contrast with the ignorance demonstrated by some modern leaders. Today’s leaders lack the ability to set ambitious goals similar to the post-war efforts to integrate the countries of Western Europe. 

However, almost all the speakers had kind things to say about French President Emmanuel Macron. His August speech at the conference of the French ambassadors at the Élysée Palace, in which he recognised the end of Western hegemony and called for a rethinking of relations with Russia, made a great impact. Alexander Orlov called Macron a new kind of politician, one who recognises the changes in the world. According to Arno Dubien, head of the Observo French-Russian think tank, Macron is a convinced old-school European who sincerely believes in the values of European integration. However, Macron has confronted several EU countries at once: Poland, Hungary and Italy under the previous government; at home, he has collided with the “yellow vests”. All this may interfere with the realisation of his ambitious plans. In addition, as Sabine Fischer noted, Macron is a neo-realist who thinks of great powers, but loses sight on the medium and small ones. This, of course, impresses Russia, but “is not European,” she added. 

Despite all the difficulties, the dialogue between Russia and Europe continues. The crisis of the last five years has saved the parties from illusions regarding each other, and this is good. According to the discussion’s moderator, Valdai Club Research Director Fyodor Lukyanov, there is no such thing as friendship in international relations. As soon as conversations about friendship and brotherhood begin, rationality leaves, objective circumstances fade away. Today Russia and Europe can look at each other soberly, through the prism of their own interests, finding those areas where their interaction will be mutually beneficial. And someday, perhaps, the point will be reached when they can develop a new concept of this relationship.