Debates: While the idea of a single economic space from Vladivostok to Lisbon has been in the air for quite a long time, the absence of political will from both sides hinders any cooperation.

The three main members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union: Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev (left), Russia's President Vladimir Putin (center) and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in Astana, March 20, 2015. Photo: RIA / Reuters

Established on Jan. 1, 2015, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) launched a new period of economic integration in the post-Soviet space. Despite the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West, the EAEU has declared its openness and readiness for a dialogue with everyone, including the European Union (EU), the strongest neighboring integration project.

However, there is a certain reluctance from both the EU and EAEU to launch a genuine conversation about their common future. With that in mind, Russia Direct talked to several different international experts in an attempt to clarify what are the main obstacles for EU-EAEU cooperation.

Ulf Schneider, founder and managing partner of Schneider Group

It seems to me the main obstacle is more of a mental one. For many of the people who talk about such a single economic space from Vladivostok to Lisbon, it looks like it is a long-term vision and many people at the moment have no concrete idea of it. It is too remote, too distant. So, therefore, our task at the moment is to fill this idea with content and to really show that it could be a concrete plan. Now we have to develop a kind of a roadmap for this.

The roadmap could look like the following: we define key industry sectors where common technical standards and norms may make sense, where a win-win situation is possible. For example, that is possible in the construction sector – harmonizing construction licenses and regulations that will make it much easier for Western investors to build real estate in Russia. So, that will contribute to a construction boom. Free trade, getting rid of all the customs rates and tariffs – that is maybe for much later.

You can think about other projects, like for example, the visa-free regime from Vladivostok to Lisbon. That will be very much appreciated if the Schengen countries, the Eurasian Economic Union, and also the countries in between, like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, agree on the visa-free regime.

At the beginning it could be, for instance, just for one week. So, if we cannot agree on a permanent visa-free regime we could start with at least a three-four day visa-free regime. If you can go for three-four days into any country between Lisbon and Vladivostok, it will greatly contribute to better mutual understanding. For business that will be helpful as well.

Although I understand that this is also a political question, I also find that this is a very important goal in order to promote mutual understanding between people. This also promotes trade and eventually it contributes to settlement of political disputes and misunderstandings.

Also read: "Why Europe shouldn't forget about its Russian partnership"

Emmanuel Quidet, president of the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce

There must be political will. Actually that political will started with former French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who wanted to have one market with Russia. That was forgotten and it needs to be brought back again.

I really believe in a Franco-German initiative to relaunch it. And this decision is political and has to be made by politicians. If that happens, then all technical issues and questions will be resolved. So, first you need political will. If politicians make this decision, we will do our part.

Today, the EU is the largest economy in the world. And if cooperation with the Russia-led EAEU will be built, that will be a huge market. Of course, I am not sure that everyone will appreciate that, but for the EU and EAEU, it will definitely be a big strength.

Dmitry Suslov, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow

Well, in my view the major obstacle and perhaps the most important one is the unwillingness of the EU to recognize and accept any kind of different integration project in Greater Europe other than the European Union itself. Because of geopolitical reasons, the EU basically considers itself the only pole of integration.

According to the EU, all European countries, including Russia (as well as other countries in the post-Soviet space), should orient on the EU, should develop their relations with the EU based exclusively and entirely on the EU’s normative, regulatory and political basis. Even the model of relations with Russia that the EU is offering is basically an association, even though the European Union does not call it that.

Against this background, the emergence of the Customs Union in 2010 and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 became a challenge to the EU. The challenge compelled the EU to accelerate its policy in order to draw the post-Soviet countries into its integration orbit, to pull them out of the Russia-centric integration orbit. This seriously derailed those Russian efforts to establish the Eurasian Economic Union, which actually resulted in the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, up until now, none of the mainstream European politicians, parties or political movements is ready to reject that policy. Therefore, the only positive model of relations with Russia and other member states of the EAEU is EU-centric; that implies participating in the EU-centric subsystem of the international system.

Some of the politicians in the EU, for example, Jean-Claude Juncker [President of the European Commission] and Frank-Walter Steinmeier [German Minister for Foreign Affairs], do not exclude relations between the EU and EAEU if Russia implements certain preconditions. This is, of course, unacceptable. In the Russian view, those relations should be established because of the very existence of the EAEU. This is the reality, not because Russia should behave in this or in that way.

Today for the EU there is no third option. There is either competition with Russia and the EAEU or cooperation. The latter option would basically anticipate a profound change in Russia that the EU sees inevitable.

So this is the paradigm that programs the policy of the EU towards the EAEU and towards Eurasia as a whole.

That said, I believe in a couple of years, the EU will start changing its mindset because of the internal situation in the EU and a changing international environment that is no longer in Europe’s favor. Internally, the EU is going through one of the most profound transformations in its history because of the German leadership. Externally, the EAEU is getting stronger.

So, although I doubt it is a very realistic one, the best-case scenario would be full international recognition of the EAEU. That would happen because of an agreement with China. In fact, this agreement is currently going through negotiations.

The EU would then start relations with the EAEU on trade and regulatory practices, which are the areas where their competences converge. An even better scenario would be that the EU and EAEU will elaborate and agree upon certain rules and regulations vis-à-vis those countries that are between the EU and EAEU, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

That requires an elaboration of the rules of the game that are not imposed only by Russia or only by the EU. That would basically solve the issue of the tug of war between the two sides and put an end to their competition.