EU-Russia relations: The Dialogue imperative

The European Union and Russia have to muddle through the period when most of the assessments made regarding the essence and the future of their relationship will be overly pessimistic. The pessimism derives from the assessment of the possible dynamics of the Ukraine crisis, as well as the direction of Russia’s future development. The uncertainties of the EU development are more often regarded as a separate issue, although they too will most probably influence the relations with Russia.

It is quite possible that in the short-term perspective the legal basis, the substance and the mood of the relationship would remain as they are today. This would already represent a middle-way scenario, positioned in between the most positive and the most negative options, since many experts fear further deterioration of the relationship. Therefore, the major concern for the EU and Russia in the next few years will be limiting the damage that can willingly or unwillingly be done to their relationship. A necessary, though insufficient, prerequisite for attaining this goal is to maintain the dialogue on a vast spectrum of issues, from global crises to the technicalities of trade. Disagreements and disappointment will most probably remain regular companions of many talks, which however would not make the talks irrelevant. The standing disagreements define the red lines set by the actors, and therefore set the room of manoeuvre, which is only very rarely getting diminished to none.

EU-Russia Common Spaces

The idea of the EU-Russia common spaces, suggested in 2003 and developed since then, still officially makes part of the long-term approach of each side towards the other. At the same time this objective is now further away than at any given instance prior to 2014. Nevertheless, the fields of plausible cooperation, determined by the 2005 ‘road maps’ never get old. They cover the spectrum of human activity and interaction, which is always with us, whether we use its potential or not. That is why the areas of four ‘road maps’ will be used to structure this paper.

In each field, one can notice that in spite of the significant political turbulence, routine interaction between the EU and Russia is omnipresent. In other words, the initial prerequisite of dialogue that has to be maintained is being met so far. The way the EU-Russia relationship can and has to be reformed is much less of a decided issue for each of the actors. Keeping intact the usual mantra of a common European space, which would encompass Russia, does not help in this regard. In the last few years it has been repeatedly demonstrated that building the common space may indeed remain a vague idea of a distant future but it is hardly a guideline for policy strategies implemented today. What rather turns out to be the guideline, sometimes openly pronounced and sometimes hidden behind a rhetorical smokescreen, is the mutual deterrence aimed at proving the fact that further changes to the geopolitical status quo of power and influence in Europe will not go unnoticed and would bring negative repercussions to a perpetrator. Vigilance becomes a priority and stubbornness turns into a modus operandi.

The institutional division of labour between various multilateral entities present in European politics gets ever more overshadowed by the Russia-West dichotomy. This is one of the most worrying developments in the EU-Russia context. The argument that it might be harder for Russia to accommodate NATO policies, but the EU remains a force that also serves the Russian interest of having a more stable and prosperous neighbourhood, is all but depleted. Ever more often the EU and NATO are interpreted as two faces of the same coin. Russian and Western politicians and analysts get drugged by the ‘zero-sum game’ approach. Many believe that strategic incoherence between the attitudes of certain western states vis-à-vis Russia, as well as between the EU and NATO, is a sign of weakness that has to be addressed so that the Western community would be able to speak with one tough voice to Moscow. The parties have got into a vicious challenge-response cycle, where the hardliners insist on tough response to tough actions, preparing the ground for an even tougher counter-action in the next round.

Much of the debate on the state of the relationship ends with an assertion that the political will or political wisdom necessary to get to a more positive track is absent. The idea of strategic patience that has to secure one-sided gains trumps the idea of an advanced cooperation both sides would gain from.

Economic cooperation

The EU remains Russia’s leading trade partner, even if the overall volume of trade relations suffered from the sanctions war and the stumbling pace of Russian economy. It is widely known that the trade structure suffers an evident misbalance since Russia mostly exports natural resources and gets high-tech goods from the EU. The Russian government has on many occasions proclaimed its willingness to change the equation by bolstering the country’s technological development and supporting exports activities of non-resource-extracting companies, including small and medium ones. Whether Russia might cherish hopes to use its relationship with the EU for this purpose is a matter of a fierce debate.

The assumption that Russian or the EU policies will experience significant changes in the future, leaving more room for economic interaction, is not completely unrealistic but it cannot work as a foundation for the analysis aimed at the next few years. Even if the parties manage to have a more meaningful debate on political issues, much of the political setup with its controversies and tensions is to remain with us. A number of EU members will keep pushing for increasing vigilance vis-à-vis Russian behaviour, while Russia will not surrender its policy goals for the sake of a more comfortable dialogue with the EU. This makes the idea of a ‘partnership for modernisation’ between the EU and Russia even more problematic than in 2010, when the idea was proclaimed but did not bring significant results.

The EU will most probably be unable to come to a consensus regarding any support for Russia’s technological development. The argument will go that while Russian foreign and domestic policies include elements inacceptable for the EU, this would not be in the EU’s interest. In Russia, this will be interpreted as an invitation to work with individual Member States and on the business-to-business level, circumventing the EU bodies on all possible occasions. In many cases this will indeed be a promising approach since blocking all sorts of cooperation with Russia will not constitute the EU consensus either, unless there would be a further dramatic deterioration of the relationship in the common neighbourhood or elsewhere.

European Union and Eurasian Economic Union

Given that the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is based on the customs union, any preferential trade agreement would have to be negotiated not with Russia solely but with the Eurasian Economic Commission (EAC) that will have to take into account the attitudes of the EAEU members. This does not necessarily complicate things, since the EU could interpret the talks with the EAC as less spoiled by the difficulties that mark the EU-Russia relations as such. However, according to most estimates, while an EU-EAEU technical dialogue remains an option, any far-reaching trade agreement will hardly see the day in the short-to-middle-term perspective.

A number of Russian economic actors were engaged in serious lobbying activities against the WTO membership even after the Russian government made it clear that it is determined to join the organisation. Any future progress on free trade between the EU and EAEU will too ignite a serious protectionist opposition. The strength of the arguments in favour of free trade will highly depend on the state of the Russian economy at the time when this discussion would be launched. The less competitive Russian industries will be, the more tempting it will seem to survive behind protectionist hurdles, even if much of the scientific argument would support free trade as a major driver for the economy.

The current interpretation of the EU’s and Russia’s interests, therefore, makes up for a paradox. The EU might be interested in having free trade with Russia but it does not want to help create a boost for Russian economy necessary to push the country towards free trade, since the boost may allegedly be used for malign purposes. Russia, in its turn, benefits greatly from its everyday interaction with the EU as an economic powerhouse, but it would rather put as much of its bets, as it can, on cooperation with individual Member States, since in the Russian eyes the EU’s decision-making is spoiled by certain ‘russophobes’.

Since any major EU-Russia, or even EU-EAEU, trade agreement remains unrealistic, much of the experts’ advice suggests the EU-EAEU working-level dialogue to be used in order to overcome technical difficulties and ensure coherence of trade procedures, where this would require little more than the good will to make the life of business people easier.

It is also worth noting that even as the Russian-western tensions assume ever more long-standing character, the Russian government still seems determined to use and implement the practices, rules, and regulations set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This interest can easily be explained given that the business world does value the OECD framework, as it represents an easy way to assess governments’ approach to business and make investment decisions. Russia was even close to joining the organization before the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The accession process has been suspended as a reflection of the OECD countries attitude to Russia’s actions in the course of the crisis. While this would require certain progress in the conflict area in the East of Ukraine, resuming the accession process might be a low-hanging fruit that would have an indirect positive influence over the EU-Russia relationship, helping the business world to speak common language.

Freedom, Security and Justice in Times of Distrust

Among the bits of the sanctions against Russia agreed by the EU in the context of the Ukraine crisis has been the suspension of visa dialogue. On whether by 2013 the EU and Russia were close to a visa-free travel, the assessments vary greatly. Some experts strongly believe that the EU was unable to forge consensus on that at any given time since the 2004 enlargement, when a number of countries historically fearing Russia joined the Union. The others rely on the words of the officials that significant progress toward the visa-free goal had been made and Russia could have followed Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, if it hadn’t been for the Ukraine crisis.

As a result of political tensions and propaganda campaigns, the trust between the EU and Russia, which was probably never in ideal condition, suffered greatly. In the meantime, trust is an important condition for bringing about the cooperation between security and migration services necessary to make visa-free travel a reality.

So far, the crisis did not change dramatically the regular EU practices – Russians remain among the leading successful applicants for Schengen visas. In the turbulent political environment, this fortunate state of affairs cannot be taken for granted – as a result of a diplomatic spat, it turned all but impossible to get a U.S. visa in Russia.

One of the past achievements of the EU-Russia relations that still produces benefits is the 2006 visa facilitation agreement. It allows for issuing of multiple-entry multi-year visas by both sides – the practice used extensively by some EU members, used with more restraint by other Member States, and very rarely used by Russia. In other words, the agreement in force leaves significant room for increased coherence in implementation of visa procedures, which could significantly reduce, at the very least, the number of occasions citizens have to face the visa-related red tape. This would require restauration of visa dialogue, even if both parties come to a conclusion that the visa-free travel will not happen any time soon.

The other way to reduce the visa burden for citizens that may be explored by the EU and Russia taking parallel steps rather than as a result of a new agreement runs through further expansion of e-visa tools. Data-gathering may happen online, while physical visits to consulates may be reduced to one or zero.

Cooperation on domestic security also includes fighting against crime, including terrorism. Again, the lack of trust between the EU and Russia makes effective cooperation in this field increasingly hard. A number of influential voices in the EU point at Russia as a perpetrator guilty of sawing divide and instability in the EU. This positions Russia as an actor, security services should work against rather than with. Selective cooperation on some issues isolated from competition on the others is increasingly difficult in this field.

The EU has for a long time insisted on making human rights and rule of law issues an important part of its dialogue with Russia. In Russia significant efforts have been made lately to prove to the population that the EU does not represent a pattern to follow in this regard. As a result, the idea of a values gap between Russia and the EU has become widely accepted, which is more than a philosophical deliberation but corrupts the atmosphere of dialogue on practical issues.

In everyday life the behaviour of most Russian citizens where they have to insist on their rights, or face the courts, or dig into the laws, may not be much different from that of the EU citizens but the ideological battle ground is designed to deliberately underline the existential difference between the two actors. While this fight will not end soon, it can at least be marginalised by more down-to-earth dialogue that helps to resolve particular cases of crime and judicial malfunction.

Beyond the EU structure a serious risk for the Russian-Western relationship on the matters of rule of law and justice may come from a difficult record Russia had lately with the Council of Europe (CoE). The CoE provides a valuable framework that includes the European Court of Human Rights recognized by the EU members, as well as by Russia. The most conservative part of the Russian political spectrum, as well as Russia’s strongest critics abroad, paradoxically share hopes that Russia will soon leave the organization. For the radical conservatives that would mean more freedom to define their attitude to issues such as death penalty and justice, while for the critics of Russia that would work as an allegedly deserved expulsion from the civilized community of nations. In real terms, Russia quitting the CoE would mean much weaker legal protection of Russian citizens, as well as widening gaps between Russia and the EU.

External Security

While on some occasions, such as the negotiations on the Iran nuclear programme, the EU and Russia managed to work together to resolve globally important security issues, the overall impression remains that the actors take divergent courses on both global and regional security matters. The idea of having an EU-Russia body dealing with foreign and security policy, which made part of the Medvedev-Merkel 2010 Meseberg memorandum, will probably be explored again sometime in the distant future, but will not work for the short-term. It is not just that the EU will not be able to agree to such a move but it would also prove the futility of excessive institutionalisation. An “EU-Russia Committee” of this sort would only reproduce the quarrels now taking place in the UN, the OSCE or the NATO-Russia Council, unless the parties decide to make adjustments to their political approaches. Having a new negotiating table would not help in this regard. If there is a conflict resolution option in one of the areas that divide the EU and Russia, that both parties are willing to discuss and eventually agree upon, they will find time and place to do that.

The key for the EU-Russia non-conflictual relationship in the field of external security is, at least, partial resolution of the conflict in the East of Ukraine, which is often interpreted as a proxy war for influence between Russia and the West. The attempts to put the conflict’s history record straight, so that both sides would agree on the facts starting from 2013, would only strengthen mutual irritation. The only workable option is to deal with the realities on the ground as of today. The option of a peacekeeping component to the conflict resolution should be seriously explored. If the peace-making process gets on the right track, restauration of the Donbass would require significant international support that can be discussed in advance and be used as an important element of a package deal pushing negotiations forward.

The peacekeeping component would require dealing with many practical issues, including financing the mission, and bringing together the personnel required. If the political agreement is reached, the EU’s experience with deployment and management of military missions might be helpful, even if the direct involvement of individuals from the EU, or at least NATO members, would be considered undesirable.

Inability of parties to get to a consensus on the East of Ukraine remains a strong risk that might either end with another escalation or with a de facto freezing of the conflict that will keep being used as a manifestation of permanent and insurmountable controversies between Russia and the West.

The risks related to other post-Soviet frozen conflicts are rarely discussed outside specific expert audiences, but they do not go away and have to be considered. The assumption goes that the conflicts will not be resolved unless there is a qualitative change in the relationship between Russia and the West. On the other hand, many assume a better Russian-Western relationship will hardly see the day, unless there is progress in the areas of frozen conflicts. The tiny conflict zones turn into benchmarks used mainly to prove that the status quo of regional influence is not moving anywhere.

The constant reproach made to the EU by Russian officials and experts is pointing at the deep-running strategic dependency on the United States. Given that the U.S.-Russia relations are in an even worse condition than that of the EU and Russia, the transatlantic linkage seems to constitute an even greater difficulty. Surprisingly, in the course of the sanctions war Russia might realise that the U.S.-Europe bond is rather beneficial for the Russian interests, since the U.S. has to act with more constraint if they have to think about their European allies that have much more developed economic ties to Russia than their U.S. peers.

Science, Education, Culture

Even if affected by the political difficulties, scientific, educational and cultural communication between the EU and Russia continues. This is inevitably the kind of cooperation centred on the exchange of ideas and knowledge, which means that some parts of it suffer from the information war or turn into a part thereof. Keeping closed the flood-gates that would separate one from the other will be increasingly difficult, unless the information war is stopped.

The key to the effective cooperation in this field is the growing number of people who participate in exchange programmes, have the necessary skills and potential to contribute to multinational projects. However, as the information war proliferates, much of these projects, be it in tech, natural sciences or the humanities, will be regarded by a number of observers with growing suspicion.

For an increasing number of people in public offices in the EU interaction with Russia might rather represent a risk than an opportunity to advance international cooperation. In Russia, fighting western influences turns into a legitimate goal pursued by political mainstream. This is the way to further mutual alienation that can yet be abandoned relatively easily. Every successful example of educational or scientific cooperation will work as a stepping stone that helps to avoid the path of isolation.

Mutually beneficial cooperation possible?

As of today, the EU and Russia lack the critical mass of voices that would speak in favour of a genuine mutually beneficial cooperation. For the reasons of politics, which always includes vested interests, and history, which will, if allowed, feed future animosities with past grievances, the choir of the conservative backlash gets louder, proclaiming the natural character of a never-ending rivalry between Russia and the West. In this worldview, the EU is one of the masks used by the malign West striving for global dominance, while Russia is the headliner of obscurantist reactionary traditionalists wishing to push the world’s clock a few centuries back. Most people living in the EU or in Russia would call this description a caricature, and rightly so. But this would be a passive disagreement, and mostly with the description of one’s self rather than that of the ‘enemy’. If more people-to-people communication will help cure this relationship, it won’t happen in two or three years. More dialogue, more respect, and modest but valuable joint projects, for some of which the hints were given above, shall save the relationship from getting worse in the short term.