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Europe’s Decline and Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?(1)



Europe’s Decline and Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?(1)


by Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai
Discussion Club


Europe is one of Russia’s most important neighbors and partners. Russia is and
will remain in the decades to come the most populous European nation.
Historically, Europe has always been for Russia, as well as other neighbors,
either a source of threats or a source of motivation and the means for
progress. In fact, it has never been easy for anyone to be Europe’s neighbor or
partner. Europe has always required vigilance and diplomatic skill, as it has
always posed a threat. But it has also nurtured outstanding achievements of the
spirit and the mind. Only Chinese civilization can be compared with Europe in
terms of the spiritual, intellectual and technological advances bestowed on
humanity.

In the second half of the 20th century, European integration became an example
for the whole world of how sovereign countries can settle disputes in a
peaceful manner and pursue their own national ambitions through cooperation,
not competition. It is the sole example of this kind so far. Europe has also
played a pivotal role in Russia’s turn toward Asia in an effort to build
long-term stable relationships with China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian
and Eurasian countries. Europe is an integral part of Greater Eurasia, which
makes further development of Russian-Chinese cooperation unthinkable without
the extensive involvement of European nations.

Over the course of the 25 years since the establishment of the European Union
and the emergence of Russia as a sovereign state, their relationship has been
marked by ups and downs, from shared optimism in the first half of the 1990s to
the lassitude of the end of the decade, from disillusionment and a few final
attempts to breathe new life in the relationship in the early 2000s to the
discord and competition that has gained momentum in recent years. However,
through all these years there was one thing that remained unchanged: Europe has
always been a strong, relatively united actor that proactively pursued
dialogue. The EU institutions in Brussels were always consistent in their
commitment to put forward new projects and initiatives, create negotiation
platforms and shape the agenda across the board. It is the EU that proposed
signing the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between the European Union
and the Russian Federation in the early 1990s, creating four Common Spaces in
2005, and signing the EU-Russia Partnership for Modernization in 2009. All
Russia had to do was accept or turn down the European proposals.

The situation has now changed, creating a more challenging agenda for Russia.
In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia will no longer be able to rely on Europe or
play the role of subordinate, if not junior, partner. Moscow, on the contrary,
should now be the one offering EU countries and institutions political and
economic projects and initiatives based on mutual interest. For Russia, this
will be as much of a challenge as European assertiveness has been in the last
two decades.

These changes are mostly internal European in nature. Europe has had the
misfortune of facing one crisis after another in the last 10 to 12 years. First
came the constitutional crisis in 2005-2008, followed by the economic and
monetary crisis that started in 2008, and the solidarity crisis in 2015-2016.
Each wave of crisis brought about subtle institutional improvements, while also
sapping some of the power and energy of the European project and undermining
the faith of Europeans in the viability and benefits of collective action. It
must be acknowledged that the European Union is in the worst shape since the
Eurosclerosis of the 1960s-1970s. The crisis it is going through is not just
systemic, but existential.

At the same time, in economic terms the EU remains one of the three key players
in international affairs alongside the US and China. Russia with all its
military might has a long way to go before it can reach a comparable level of
economic development. Some EU countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands,
Austria, as well as in Central and Northern Europe, are achieving spectacular
economic results. Europe remains one of the most sought-after partners for
investment and trade. However, having common regulations also creates
obstacles. For instance, poorer Eastern European countries are seeking to
develop investment partnerships with China, bypassing EU institutions and
standards. For this purpose they have created the 16+1 mechanism (11 countries
of Central and Eastern Europe, 5 Balkan states + China) without Brussels
playing any significant role. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the overall
European economy is in good shape.

However, Europe’s economic achievements cannot offset its political slump. Even
though some EU countries are successful and important players in the global
economy, more and more observers view Europe and the European Union in general
as the “sick man of Eurasia.” The main cause lies in the relative erosion of
pan-European institutions and collective decision-making mechanisms, and the
unprecedented loss of appeal of the EU both within its borders and beyond.
Member states are less and less interested in the European project, which is a
dangerous thing, since there is no way of telling whether European countries
will act responsibly once freed from the restrictive integration mechanisms.
Accordingly, it is now important for Russia to support the EU as a project, while
keeping a close eye on developments in its member states so as to establish
closer ties with them.

It took decades to devise a system that enabled stakeholders to negotiate,
coordinate their interests and resolve technical issues related to integration
behind the scenes, but now it has come under threat. Referendums have become
commonplace, each time calling into question the European future of one country
or another. What is even more alarming is that the crisis of the EU as an
institution and cooperation framework undermines European unity. When
integration was working, from the early 1980s until the first half of the
2000s, Europe and the European Union were synonymous, and European leaders were
proactive in promoting this vision. Now that the EU is half-paralyzed, many
think that the whole European continent is suffering. Although EU countries
like Germany, France and Italy are still important players in the global
economy and global politics, their military and political role remains
insignificant, which is attributable to sacrifices they made in the course of
European integration.