At a time when Europe is facing a serious crisis along with new threats and challenges, better ties with Russia could help to address those issues and avoid disastrous consequences.

A demonstrator stands outside the Houses of Parliament during a protest aimed at showing London's solidarity with the European Union following the EU referendum, in central London, Britain, June 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters

On July 25 UNESCO headquarters in Paris hosted the annual conference of the Youth Association for a Greater Europe. This is an event that gathers together young professionals, students from across Europe, French politicians, UNESCO representatives, diplomats and professors to discuss the most important issues facing Greater Europe. One of the ideas being addressed at the event is the future of Europe’s relationship with Russia.

Over the last few years, Europe has experienced new challenges and crises that have tested its ability to retain a rigid institutional structure within the changing international order. Global economic and financial crisis, slowdown of economic development, tensions with Russia over Ukraine, the refugee crisis and the rising terrorist threat, and now the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU) – all these challenges are leading to an inward focus for the EU as it deals with its own problems rather than concentrating on solving external issues.

Many experts, including participants of the UNESCO-sponsored conference, underlined that Europe is currently experiencing the deepest crisis in its history. Brexit jumped to the top of existing European problems and is now turning out to be the biggest challenge facing the Union. French Senator Yves Pozzo di Borgo argued that Brexit was not about the fate of the EU per se. Rather, it is about broader issues, like the general demand in many European countries for a change, for a new leadership, for more transparency and less bureaucracy.

Claude Blanchemaison, former Ambassador of France to Russia and former Secretary General of the French Presidency of the EU, agreed that there is demand in many EU member states for new elites. He argued that people are fed up with conservatives and social democrats. When a government changes, the politics of a new party in power are not changing much. This is why it created a natural demand for a change, which Brexit in fact reflected.

Therefore, in such circumstances, despite geographical proximity and strong economic ties, relations with Russia are not at the top of the European agenda right now. EU-Russia relations are not being addressed with the required attention, which leads to the lack of dialogue between the parties. Tensions between the two sides, combined with significantly decreased dialogue between them, is a net loss for both. If the dialogue had remained, it could have helped to solve certain problems that do not fall into the category of sanctions.

“We have common challenges and common objectives with Russia,” argued di Borgo, talking about terrorism, global economic slowdown, intercultural communication and exchange programs.

Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov offered his vision of why Europe is facing its current crisis. He argued that, “Although the economy is at the core of any integration, the EU is not only about the economy.” Orlov suggested that the EU has become focused too much on the economy while it should have a political core as well. “Europe should be united by some political project to help it to solve the existing crisis,” said Ambassador Orlov.

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The current crisis in the EU has a specific impact on European relations with Russia and might lead to a confrontation if the EU doesn’t manage the crisis effectively. That will become a worst-case scenario, which both Europe and Russia should avoid.

The UK’s recent decision to leave the EU had triggered a lot of discussions about the future of Europe and its relations with Russia. Some say Russia will benefit from Brexit as Europe is becoming weaker and less united, while others argue that Brexit will strengthen European integration and make EU members more united. However, the most possible scenario is likely somewhere in between.

Ambassador Blanchemaison suggested that Brexit, in fact, could give the EU a new impetus to rethink its policies and internal regulations, which will give it a fresh start and development. In addition, it is a good chance that it will give a new impetus to a new phase in EU relations with Russia.

In contrast, Ambassador Orlov suggested that if Europe intends to avoid the disastrous scenario of Russia-EU confrontation, it needs to ask people what they want. Brexit is just the beginning of a broader political trend. That said, Ambassador Orlov suggested that people in Europe will start to question their politicians and traditional practices more, thus leading to formation of a new trend, which has to be addressed and handled properly.

Overall, the current crisis in the EU, the new challenges and threats, plus serious tensions with Russia – all have created a critical mass for a potential confrontation between Russia and the EU that must be avoided by all means. Fostering dialogue and restoring and developing ties between Russia and Europe will only be to the advantage of both and, moreover, will contribute to the overall stability in Europe and create a foundation for further integration and cooperation.