Russia-EU summit: Optimistic stagnation

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Russia-EU summit: Optimistic stagnation
Published 21-12-2012, 10:05
The atmosphere in which the leaders of Russia and the EU are meeting for their 30th summit in December is one of ambivalence. On the one hand, they have developed a firm institutional basis with the Russia-EU summit at its core, complemented by numerous meetings in various formats and active cooperation between officials. It is a reliable, functional basis, which has not deteriorated over the past 10 or so years, although it has not improved either. The mechanisms involved are good for addressing many practical issues in Russian-EU relations in a businesslike manner, if not quickly enough. 
On the other hand, Russia and Europe have not yet overcome the zero-sum philosophy and mentality, in which one party's gains result only from equivalent losses or concessions by another party. All of the really important negotiations over the past 10 to 15 years were held according to the rules of that game, including the WTO accession talks, the ban on Polish meat imports, the European vegetable scandal, etc. 

This explains the ambivalent sentiments. The partners’ relations rest on a solid foundation, and there is readiness and a desire to talk, and an agenda that is more diverse compared to relations with the US or China. What these relations lack is the psychological readiness to break out of the rigid limits of mutual complaints and the focus on concessions.

The Old Europe countries are interested in developing close cooperation with Russia, whereas New Europe, that is, the latest newcomers to the EU, would like to keep Russia at arm’s length. Relations between Russia and Germany are several steps ahead of Russia's relations with the EU as a whole. It is not Russia’s business to try to find or force a consensus within the EU. The numerous internal problems of the EU countries are their own business, and it is for them alone to choose their place in the world and their cooperation partners.

Energy is a key element in Russia-EU relations, and Russia’s main partner in this sphere is Germany and big German companies. However, the German government and Ruhrgas refuse to discuss certain issues directly with Moscow or Gazprom. This is when EU institutions move in. The Russia-EU format is perfect for discussing issues that either do not interest individual EU countries or appear to be too complex. Brussels acts as moderator when individual EU countries refuse to say what they want openly. 

Russia has made very many steps towards the EU. Now the EU should either return the courtesy or pretend to be offended and raise a political ruckus. Judging by statements made during the St. Petersburg Dialogue meeting in November 2012, Russia’s European friends are not yet ready to respond in kind. A meeting of the Valdai Club members with the Russian president in October 2012 revealed that Russian-EU relations have cooled. But Europe also has chilly relations with the United States, China and several other countries, because the EU is not ready to drop old paradigms and is fighting an internal political crisis. 

In short, Europe as a negotiating partner tends to combine things that don’t mix, which can create funny situations. For example, at the height of the vegetable crisis in 2011, the European Parliament adopted a one-page resolution urging Russia to respect human rights and to lift its embargo on vegetable imports from Europe. The EU stubbornly puts its eggs in one basket, which is a bad mark on its reputation as a partner. Russia usually responds with ambivalence: the experienced Foreign Ministry negotiators respond with a smile, while the less experienced State Duma deputies respond with irritation. 

The latest example is the talks on visa-free travel to Europe. Europe understands that this is a major goal of the current Russian authorities, because any government must give its people bread and games. Russia has resolved the bread issue, and what game could be better than visiting Paris (Prague, Jurmala, and all the way down the list) without a visa? A visa-free regime with Europe is Vladimir Putin’s attempt to give Russians bread and games. Europe has been trying to exploit this desire, advancing the most absurd demands at the visa talks. 

I think that we made a big mistake at the Russia-EU summit in late 2010, when then President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to discuss measures towards a visa-free regime. Brussels quickly compiled a long list of requirements that Russia had to honor before the EU would begin preparations for visa-free travel. Before that, Putin only addressed the issue of visa-free travel from the political angle. Moving it to the technical level was a bad mistake. Given modern movement control technology, visas are a mere formality that has long been obsolete. 

Yet the talks are continuing, because the current institutional and legal regulations do not allow Russia and Europe to split. The EU accounts for over 50% of Russia’s trade, and a large share of joint projects. Asia appears to be a more promising economic destination now, and the United States has already moved part of its interests there. But should Russia do the same? It has so many points of contact with the EU and their cooperation is so broad that political difficulties, even if they have lasted for years, are unlikely to provoke a major crisis. 

In fact, Russia has been an indirect donor for Europe, because it contributes to international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which use Russia’s money (and the funds of other countries) to help Europe deal with the crisis. They say they sympathize with Europe’s problems and are interested in the survival of the euro, but cannot provide direct assistance because they have their own problems, too.

In short, the atmosphere at the upcoming summit will not be festive. But it will not be too gloomy either. It can be described as optimistic stagnation.

Timofei Bordachev is Acting Associate Professor of the Department of World Economy and World Politics at the State University – Higher School of Economics, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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