21 May 2004
On Friday, the EU and Russia convene for one of their six-monthly summits. Brussels officials still cringe (and many Russians snigger) when they think about the last one. The last meeting, held in Italy in November 2003, exposed some of the deeper flaws in EU-Russian relations, and in the EU's nascent common foreign and security policy more generally.
National governments have often discarded pre-agreed EU positions to push for their own interests and strengthen personal bonds with President Vladimir Putin. But Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who held the EU's rotating presidency at the time, went one step too far. When journalists grilled Putin on brutalities in Chechnya and the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Berlusconi rushed to his defense, accusing the press of distorting the truth. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission and Berlusconi's arch rival, looked on in despair.
The bust-up at the last summit dealt a further blow to the already rocky EU-Russian relationship. According to official documents and summit communiques, this relationship is supposed to be a "strategic partnership." Yet there is little strategic thinking on either side on where the relationship is heading. Moscow and Brussels rarely behave like friends or partners. Mistrust and mutual frustration tarnish their dealings. There is a widening gap between acrimonious negotiations on technical details and the heady rhetoric of the six-monthly EU-Russia summits. Disagreements over small issues, such as transit rights for Kaliningrad or steel export quotas, are regularly allowed to disrupt the entire relationship.
The EU worries about authoritarian tendencies in Putin's Russia and the snail's pace of economic reform. It wants Russia to cooperate more in protecting the environment and fighting suspected terrorists, smugglers and other criminals. Russia, on the other hand, complains that the EU asks too much. It blames the EU for lack of progress on its WTO accession. It frets about the implications of eastward enlargement, which brings a larger and more powerful EU closer to Russia's doorstep. It wants the EU to scrap its tough visa rules and let Russia have a say in its foreign and security policies.
The poor state of EU-Russian relations is puzzling. A cursory glance reveals a multitude of common interests and objectives. The EU is Russia's most important business partner, accounting for more than half of Russia's external trade and most of its foreign investment. Two-thirds of Russia's oil and gas exports go to the EU. The EU relies on Russian oil and gas for around one-quarter of its energy consumption. Both sides want their common neighborhood to be stable and prosperous. Both have put the fight against international terrorism and weapons proliferation at the top of their security agendas. Both Russia and the EU see themselves as partners of the United States, while worrying about America's global hegemony. Both would like to protect the role of international organizations such as the UN and uphold the rule of international law.
Yet the EU and Russia have failed to fulfill the potential of their bilateral relationship.
There are many reasons why the two do not get on. The EU's most successful foreign policy tool is enlargement, but it cannot and will not offer Russia membership, nor is Russia interested in this. Russia sees itself as an independent player, a regional great power with global aspirations. In its foreign policy, Russia prioritizes geostrategic and military issues rather than economics, as would any country that sits on the world's second largest nuclear arsenal but ranks only 16th on the list of the world's top economies. The EU -- often described as an economic giant but a political dwarf -- is the exact reverse. Russia's foreign policy establishment remains wedded to old-fashioned concepts such as spheres of influence, zero-sum games and strict reciprocity. Many EU policymakers and most Brussels bureaucrats believe in postmodern ideas of statecraft, such as mutual interests, shared sovereignty and win-win solutions. And the two sides also have a diametrically opposed approach to the rule of law. Rules and their equal application are at the heart of the European integration process, while many Russians still believe in the law of power rather than the power of law.
The EU insists that it can only have closer ties with Russia if Russia becomes more liberal, more democratic -- in short, more like the EU itself. It therefore puts shared values at the heart of the bilateral relationship. Most Russians are prickly about sovereignty and they find the routine reminder of shared values not only irrelevant, but often arrogant and intrusive.
Today, EU-Russia relations are characterized by mutual disillusionment. In the early 1990s, when the EU and Russia started forging their relationship, they knew little of each other but expected a lot. Today, the two sides understand each other much better; they know what they like and dislike about each other. Disillusionment could provide an opportunity for a new beginning. For this to happen, the EU member states have to show greater discipline. Russia will not take the EU seriously as long as different EU countries (and different parts of the Brussels bureaucracy) pursue diverging policies towards Russia. The EU also needs to acknowledge that it has little influence over Russia's internal developments. It should highlight common interests rather than common values. Russia would feel a lot more comfortable with an EU that clearly defined its interests and bargained hard to get them. This does not mean that the EU should close its eyes to autocratic tendencies in Russia or atrocities in Chechnya. But rather than pretending that Russia shares its values and aspirations, the EU should openly acknowledge that there are profound differences.