At a Valdai Discussion Club event on May 17 in Brussels, experts from Russia and the EU discussed the current state of Moscow’s relationship with Europe, what Russia wants from the EU and how to move forward with the relationship.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, center, and French President Francois Hollande during a meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 18, 2016. Photo: AP

Amidst the continuing tensions in Russia-EU relations, a new report from the Valdai Discussion Club, “Russia and the EU: Three Questions Concerning New Principles in Bilateral Relations,” proposes a potential way out of the current crisis by focusing on six key guiding principles. In an attempt to encourage the debate on the future trajectory of Russia-EU relations experts presented their report on May 17 at the European Policy Center, an influential think tank based in Brussels.

“This report does not pretend to teach the EU what to do. This is our look at how Russia should regard the EU, how Russia should approach the relationship. And it is up to European partners and experts in the political community to discuss what can emerge as a common vision based on our separate approaches,” said the principal author and coordinator of the report, Timofey Bordachev, who heads the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The panel discussion in Brussels included some of the report’s Russian authors, two European experts and Fernando Andresen Guimaraes, the head of the Russia Division in the European External Action Service. The authors appeared before a packed hall following a closed session, in which a larger group of Russian and EU experts held their discussion in private.

The report, which Bordachev and his colleagues began drafting late last year and initially released last week in Moscow, starts with the fundamental premise that relations between Russia and the EU “have reached the lowest point.” It also raises three important questions: What is the current state of the Russia-EU relationship? What does Russia want from the EU? And how to move forward?

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In search of a “fresh start”

Looking back at the past 20 years of history, however, the report concludes that the Ukraine crisis itself was the result of a long period of stagnation and mutual misunderstanding between Russia and the EU. The original vision for a “strategic partnership” was never fulfilled and the relationship has been eroding ever since the early 1990s as a result of “a range of low-priority initiatives” and “empty slogans.”

Both Russia and the EU have changed in the past 20 years. “Attempts by the EU to transform from an economic bloc into a political union resulted in a pattern by which it could only form a unified foreign policy based on the lowest common political denominators,” the report says.

On the other hand, Russia “became painfully disillusioned with its own inability to comply with the ‘proper’ (European) criteria, and later by those criteria themselves. Thus, Russia began searching for its own identity in an increasingly uncertain external environment.” Meanwhile, Brussels “expected Moscow to adapt to the axiological and economic dominance of the EU” and did not change its approach despite Russian attempts to make adjustments to the arrangement.

“Both sides are now very irritated with each other and there is a temptation to suspend relations and to limit them to a minimum number of purely practical issues,” the report says. But given the objective interdependence, “slamming the door shut” would be an “excessively radical option.”

“What is needed is a serious, dispassionate and professional search for new institutional and procedural models,” the experts wrote. In that perspective, the effective freezing of the relationship in 2014 and 2015 offers an opportunity for a “fresh start.”

Six principles guiding Russia’s approach to the EU

On the issue of Russian interests vis-à-vis those of Europe, the report singles out “a fair and predictable commercial relationship in the energy field, the free movement of citizens, non-interference by the EU in the internal affairs of countries within Russia’s zone of vital interests and, finally, a sufficient degree of access to the rich European market for competitive Russian goods.”

The report’s authors define the future model of Russia-EU relations as “close and adjacent to each other rather than together.” Partly in response to the “five principles” of relations with Russia proclaimed by the EU’s High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, which were approved by the European Council, the Valdai Club paper offered its six principles for Russia’s approach to the EU:

1. Openness to all partners and readiness to develop relations with any state or non-state player in the European Union at the national or European level;

2. Inclusiveness, meaning that Russia should be comfortable with the fact that some participants in the Eurasian integration project are interested in expanding their relations with the EU;

3. Subsidiarity, or the desire to resolve each question at the most appropriate, presumably lowest possible level – the member states or the EU as a whole;

4. Proportionality, which means adapting institutions to real needs of cooperation and eliminating superfluous formats of dialogue;

5. Diversification or Russia’s external ties, which would lead to decreasing its dependence on the EU and lead to a greater involvement by Russia with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member states, China, Iran, India, South Korea, Mongolia and other Eurasian states;

6. Unconditional rescindment by the EU of its visa ban on Crimean residents who were granted Russian citizenship and other “special” sanctions targeted exclusively at Crimean residents as running contrary to basic notions of human rights.

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Room for debate

In the discussion that followed, participants welcomed the report as a starting point for discussion, but did not shy away from criticizing it. James Sherr, associate fellow at Chatham House, who used to run its Russia and Eurasia Program, said that such a report would have been welcomed in May 2013, but today its major flaw is an attempt to ignore the dramatic changes that the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Eastern Ukraine have brought to the entire architecture of relationship on the European continent.

In his opinion, Russian leadership has “replaced the principles of Helsinki with the principles of Yalta” by arguing that, “Language, culture and history should be treated as factors that are at least as important and legitimate as a basis for foreign policy as citizenship, borders and the sovereignty of states.”

“The premise of the report is that all these things that have happened and are still happening should be somehow set aside and we should consider on a simply pragmatic basis how we should improve our relations. And I should say that even now, fatigued as we are by this whole contest, that there would be far more people inside Europe who will not accept this premise than accept it,” said Sherr.

He also stressed that, although the report dedicates a lot of attention to the equality in relations between Russia and the EU, it does not stipulate the equality of European states, including their free right to choose their affiliations. “The reality is that however pragmatic we wish to be, as long as we disagree on these points, the relationship will be that of tension,” he concluded.

Sherr welcomed the chapter in the Valdai report suggesting that some EAEU states may seek closer relationships with the EU and that Russia should learn to live with it. He called it “refreshing” and different from the official Moscow line that has been espoused before.

He warned, however, that Russia-EU issues are playing out these days against a much more disturbing international environment. He said: "We all need to understand that both Russia’s political and economic model and the EU’s political and economic model are in significant trouble. The Russian economy went into a secular decline well before the collapse of global oil prices. I do not believe that even if sanctions are removed and oil goes back to $60 or so that this decline is going to be arrested. We all know that the fundamental thing today is not how the association agreements are going to work and certainly not whether Ukraine is going to get a membership perspective, but whether the European Union in five years time is going to exist.” 

Fyodor Lukyanov, academic director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal and a co-author of the report, agreed with Sherr about the imminent changes that the global environment is undergoing.

“Interdependence will continue, but the universal way of living according to rules is not very likely any more. The very notion of sanctions not only between Russia and the EU… is not going to be an exception, but the new normal,” he said.

Europe, too, will need to switch from a self-understanding of being big and important to that of a “little Europe” in light of the “China factor” that is going to change much on the Eurasian continent and in the global context.

Fernando Guimaraes, who represented the EU’s External Action Service on the panel, said he welcomed the report “as an indication of what might be Russian interests and objectives in the relations with the European Union,” but stressed that it tells only “one side of the story.” He regretted the fact that, according to his view of the report, Russia considers the EU as “little more than a market for its energy resources and commodities.”

In its historical review of events leading to the present situation, “the report categorically and squarely places the blame on the EU for the current state of affairs. If this is the sum total of what we learn from the past I think we need to do a little more work,” he said.

He also pointed to the lack of acknowledgement of the crisis around Ukraine and said Russia had violated international law and the European security order. “Even though we can talk about what went wrong before, that’s the reason we are here now,” he said.

Guimaraes defended the EU’s past record in its dealing with Russia and presented the EU view of what Russia should do in order to improve the relationship. Apart from implementing the Minsk agreements – a notion that all participants agreed upon with the caveat that it should be done not just by Russia – he said Russia must accept that the EU would be strengthening relations with the countries of their common neighborhood “as much or as little each of them would choose” and argued that it is done with respect for Russian interests. He denied statements that Ukraine was presented with a choice between EU and Russia and that the EU sought regime change or fostered color revolutions.

Guimaraes interpreted the report’s suggestion of openness in Russia’s choosing European partners as “ignoring the European Union.” “To suggest that the way forward with EU-Russia relations is to ignore the European Union is perhaps not a good start,” he said. The official also argued against Russia’s perceived attempts to “undermine” the internal cohesion of the EU and fracture the union. He also criticized Russia for “demonizing” the European Union in public statements and the use of “disinformation.”

“While our shared history might not have been easy, we must continue to make the best of it, in particular, in regard to EU and Russian citizens – bringing them together and to work towards mutual peace and prosperity,” Guimaraes said.

Lukyanov reacted to Guimaraes’ speech by asking the audience to count how many times he used the words “Russia must” and “Russia should” as an indication of the EU approach that irritates Russians.

“The situation looks like this: Russia, you violated our principles, our norms, you are very, very bad guys. Russia says: we did what our values suggested and we were acting along our interests. Result: total deadlock,” remarked another Valdai Club member, Piotr Dutkiewicz, professor at Carleton University in Canada.

Professor Vincent Della Sala, academic coordinator of the Jean Monnet European Center at University of Trento, Italy, told Russia Direct after the discussion that the event on Tuesday demonstrated that room for debate on Russia-EU relations exists, although it is unlikely to change the official position.

“I don’t think it is going to change much at the official level,” Della Sala said. “But events like this and the report are useful, because otherwise the only impression one might get in Europe is that there is only one line in Russia, and that it is very closed. And I think that one thing that really came out in today’s discussion is that there is room for debate,” he added.