While EU-Russia relations have no real basis for improvement, Russia’s bilateral relationships with particular EU member states do have the potential for improvement.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, left, speaks with French President Francois Hollande, center, during the latest EU Summit in Brussels, Dec. 15. Photo: AP
For a different take read: "Russia can no longer afford to alienate the EU"
Since 2014, Russia-EU relations have been consistently negative and there is no basis for this situation to change in the year ahead. In 2016, Russia-EU relations hit another low and did not experience any improvement whatsoever.
For example, the EU extended all sanctions it had previously imposed on Russia related to Crimea and the Donbas. And, judging by the statements of EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini, it intends to continue this policy in the future.
However, after Republican candidate Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential race, Mogherini suggested that the Russian and the EU positions on certain problems might converge. They include the Iran nuclear deal, as well as topics related to the Middle East.
By doing so, Mogherini attempts to create tension between Russia and Trump on these challenges. She basically says that the EU and Russia have to confront the new course of U.S. President-elect Trump, who aims at overturning the Iran nuclear deal, among other things.
Such statements coming from the head of EU diplomacy are not very constructive. It is quite obvious that the dialogue with the next U.S. president will be a key priority for Russia. As such, Moscow will have direct discussions with Trump on all complicated international issues — including Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, Russia and the U.S. won’t need any EU mediation.
However, in such a context, Russia’s bilateral relations with the EU member states are far more interesting as they have more potential. In this regard, there are certain positive developments. First, consider the example of France, where a pro-Russian candidate, François Fillon, won the primaries of the Republicans party.
Also read: "2017, the year of Franco-Russian rapprochement?"
This is a very important development, as Fillon is advocating for the improvement of relations with Russia and intends to launch constructive dialogue with Moscow. Most likely, Fillon will become the next French president. If that eventually happens, it is highly possible that he will pursue a very moderate Russia policy. From this point of view, it will break the Franco-German alliance of current French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Another country with which Russia has been in dialogue throughout the year was Italy. This dialogue continues even now, despite the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the change of government. The newly appointed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who has already formed the new government, served as the foreign minister under Renzi and had quite constructive dialogue with Russia both politically and economically.
It’s worth highlighting that Italy was against automatic prolongation of the EU’s sanctions imposed on Russia. Moreover, Italy insisted on discussion of this challenge. In large part because of this initiative, the EU did not impose new sanctions on the Kremlin for its policy in Syria. This makes Italy an important and necessary part of the EU-Russia dialogue.
As for the Brexit and the UK vote to leave the EU, it would be better to give up any speculations about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged interference in every single political event in the West. It hardly reflects reality.
What is really important to understand is that the crisis in Europe is gaining momentum. In fact, it has already passed the point of no return. Russia did not even play a role in it. Basically, this could be the beginning of the EU’s collapse. It is quite likely that after the UK’s Brexit vote, initiatives from other countries to leave the Union will follow.
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For example, after the interim government of Gentiloni in Italy will finish its term, there will be parliamentary elections. Today, many of the Italian parliamentary parties openly discuss initiatives to hold a referendum on leaving the Eurozone. The next step is going to be a vote for leaving the EU.
It is quite symptomatic that Russia’s new foreign policy concept, which was released on Dec. 1, does not say a word about the United Kingdom. It says that Russia intends to develop its relations with the European powers like Germany, France, Italy and Spain, but it does not mention the UK.
Russia needs a strong and independent Europe
Putin consistently declares Russia's genuine interest in having a strong EU. But he talked about a Union that takes responsible domestic and foreign policy decisions based on its own interests. So far, that was not the case. The EU’s policy in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere might be sometimes contrary to its own pragmatic interests.
It remains to be seen how the EU’s behavior will change during Trump’s presidency. So far, Brussels has taken a relatively defensive position. Besides, Mogherini’s recent statements indicate that the EU, despite its rather unfavorable attitude toward Russia, started to say that it needs Moscow to confront Trump. Given the current European leadership, it is quite unlikely that Europe alone could deal with Trump.
In short, the EU is unlikely to become that strong, independent actor that Putin talked about. This is why in order to become such an actor, leadership in the key EU states needs to be changed. In this context, it is very important to see whether France, after Fillon or Marine Le Pen will come to power next year, will conduct a different foreign policy. That will indicate whether Europe is ready for a change.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.