For now, the EU is focused on Brexit and migration policy. However, sanctions against Russia continue to be among the economic priorities of the European Council
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, and European Council President Donald Tusk during the EU summit in Brussels, June 29, 2016. Photo: AP
The results of the Brexit referendum of June 23 caused shockwaves across Europe and ruffled the European elite. As a result, the June meeting of the European Council, the institution that is charged with defining the EU’s overall political direction and priorities, was rescheduled several times.
For the first time in history, a country – and a very influential one – showed serious resolve to break with the EU. This happened despite the fact that the UK’s own leaders believed that EU membership was more effective in promoting the country’s interests.
“We regret the outcome of this election, but we will respect this decision,” said Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council.
Almost immediately, the leading parties in Europe – including centrists, social democrats and liberals - began proposing ideas for modernizing the EU and making it more dynamic.
Right before the European Summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met in Berlin. This meeting showed that EU leaders were disappointed in the UK’s decision. However, in a joint statement they encouraged the remaining members to cooperate more closely in the spheres of defense and economic growth.
The response to anti-European sentiments, in their opinion, should be greater political cooperation and closer relations in the social sphere. They also proposed focusing on better cooperation in the field of fiscal policy and unemployment reduction.
The proposition of such plans is a necessary response to the EU current challenges at this difficult time. As Nadezhda Arbatova, an expert from the Center for European Integration at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), argues “the European Union is currently experiencing, perhaps, the most difficult period since the beginning of European integration.”
What’s next for the Brussels-Moscow dialogue?
In terms of EU-Russia relations, it is evident to Russian officials that close cooperation between the EU and NATO will only be reaffirmed at the upcoming summit in Warsaw on July 8. At the end of the Brussels summit, the deepening cooperation between EU and NATO was reasserted. There was an emphasis placed on common goals and values of both organizations, and their approcahes to challenges coming from Ukraine and the Middle East.
Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that having a common army and defense policy for Europe is crucial. Clearly, Moscow will take this into account.
When it comes to the sanctions on Russia, and their possible removal, most Russian experts were convinced that this question would receive little attention. As was noted by Olga Potemkina, head of European Integration Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “sectoral sanctions will be extended for another six months.”
In the end, that is what happened. Despite the protests of countries such as Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, the economic sectoral sanctions were extended for another half-year without much discussion. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, made this point succinctly.
“At this point, it is absolutely clear, that in June we will extend the sanctions," he said. "And, in the course of the next several months, we will continue monitoring the situation to see if enough progress had occurred in regard to the Minsk Agreement in order to remove them.”
This sentiment expressed by the head of the European government gives hope that talks between Moscow and Brussels will continue in the future, provided there is movement on the Ukraine problem.
This meeting in Brussels marked the end of the half-year presidency of the Netherlands in the EU. These six months resulted in two failures, that of Brexit on June 23, and one in April, when during a referendum in the Netherlands, the country rejected an association agreement of EU-Ukrainian cooperation.
During the next half-year cycle, the reins will be given to Slovakia, with whom Russia has had cordial relations in recent years. Perhaps this is a chance at rapprochement with Europe before the end of the year.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.