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Europe’s Decline and Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?(2)


Europe’s Decline and Uncertain Future: What Should Russia Do?(2)


by Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club


Political events in the United States, with the election of a president whostruggles to understand the point of the EU or even take an interest in it, arecertain to play a big role. In other words, the European Union is not part ofthe new US leader’s worldview. This makes it impossible to create theBerlin-Washington world order that the EU seeks, i.e. a Trans-Atlantic regionthat is essentially a homogenous US-led cultural, economic and military spacewith Germany also playing a decisive role. The creation of the TransatlanticTrade and Investment Partnership as an important political project has beenpostponed indefinitely, although TTIP’s economic elements can still beimplemented through an EU-Canada trade deal.

Brexit marks a turning point in European history. One of the largest Europeancountries behind Russia, Germany and France, namely Great Britain will nolonger be part of EU institutions, which is sure to change the balance of powerwithin the union. There will be nobody to act as a counterweight to anincreasingly powerful and determined Germany. And it will be extremelychallenging for the next French administration to put the degradingFrench-German integration engine back on track. Even if a moderate candidatewere to win the presidential election in spring 2017, he or she would have toadopt some of the ideas and slogans of the right-wing National Front party.This could make the task of reinforcing European integration even moredaunting. At the very least, it would make it harder to resolve the issue ofmass migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, which is currentlythe most vexing political issue for the EU. After all, the migration crisisposes a challenge to European states and societies on many levels, and it isnot clear whether the EU can overcome it in a unified way.

Given all these sources of uncertainty, the principle that each crisis makesEuropean integration stronger may not hold this time. Europe is clearly goingthrough a crisis, and there are no prospects for the EU to reclaim its abilityto effectively address the development tasks facing member states. This addsmore urgency to the debate on the attitude of key global players and neighborstoward Europe and the issues it faces. While the standpoint of the US has beenquite clear so far, Russia, China, Iran and other key Eurasian powers have yetto clearly articulate their perspective. Maybe they should be honest about howthey intend to build a relationship with a struggling Europe.

Russia may be tempted to try and pit EU countries and institutions against oneanother in order to take advantage of the EU’s internal woes, especially sinceRussia has serious and reasonable grounds for doing so. It simply had torespond to what Brussels did in Ukraine during the crisis and coup in thewinter of 2013~2014, its economic war against Crimea andRussian companies in general, and a number of other actions. Even if Russianofficials were actually in contact with radical EU parties that oppose theestablishment, it would be understandable.

However, Russia should not be in a hurry to meddle in European affairs,especially given that interference of this kind has a poor track record.Despite the hostile actions by the EU and some of its member states in recentyears, Europe should not be viewed as an enemy. Instead, Russia should becommitted and consistent in its efforts to further develop and strengthenrelations with all European partners. What makes Europe strong is itsdiversity. Russia’s policy towards the Old World should also be diversified. Wetried to articulate the basic tenets of this policy in the Valdai Club paperpublished in the spring of 2016. At this stage, it is important to specify howRussia should deal with Europe as it struggles to overcome its internal crisis.What political and economic projects can Russia offer its Western neighbors? Inthe next three to five years, the EU is expected to be restrained in itsactions for a number of reasons. A lot can be done during this period in termsof Russia’s relations with the EU, as well as with individual EU members. Forthat, Russia will need to show considerable patience and put forward as manyinitiatives as possible.

Russia should already be working to develop a proactive European strategy. Thisstrategy could rely on solid principles and an open agenda in all possibleareas of cooperation. In any case, waiting for the EU to respond to Russia’sinitiatives as an institution should not be an option. Concrete projects shouldtarget specific partners, whether European institutions, governments, privatecompanies, business associations, or civil society groups, without seeking tocreate antagonism with Brussels or its battered bureaucracy.

The active Russia-EU sectoral dialogues should not be terminated so much as adaptedto meet current needs. Unfortunately, by 2014 these dialogues had mostlyevolved into purely technical discussions between the European Commission andthe Russian Government. It may be time now for Russia to focus these dialogueson real market players in sectors like energy, transport, investment andfinance. All these developments should be coordinated with the agenda forRussia’s and the EAEU’s relations with China.

It may be appropriate to revive visa-free travel negotiations with at leastsome EU countries, if not all of them. Government-level consultations can startright away, taking into account the stance of specific countries on issues ofmajor political importance for Russia. In fact, visa-free travel may helpovercome stereotypes and suspicion that have built up over recent years. It isalso up to Russia to determine the role EU institutions will play in the newRussian strategy toward a weaker Europe. EU institutions should not be ignoredcompletely, even though there are serious barriers that prevent the EuropeanCommission from restoring its relations with Russia. Together with its EAEUpartners, Russia should devise and submit to the EU a new roadmap for EAEU-EUdialogue, with Kazakhstan and Belarus making a significant contribution to thisinitiative. Politicians and experts should take into account Europe-relatedmatters in their dialogue with China and other Asian partners. And this barelyscratches the surface of what is possible.