Europe is facing difficult questions about what will happen after Britain leaves the EU. For Russia, too, the future of European integration remains a hot-button issue.

A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report "Brexit: Is Europe Unraveling?". Photo: Russia Direct

At this week’s 2017 Gaidar Economic Forum, which is taking place in Moscow at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), the central topic of debate was the future of Europe. More specifically, participants discussed how Brexit might change the future trajectory of the EU.

Coincidentally, the Moscow event is taking place during the same week that UK Prime Minister Theresa May was supposed to take the floor with a highly anticipated speech on the Brexit process. Officially, Brexit is scheduled for the end of March, so time is running out to clarify what will happen next.

Brexit and the future of Europe

Brexit is still very much in the spotlight, even after six months of discussion and debate. The goal for Prime Minister May, it appears, is to complete the Brexit process with minimal reputational, financial, economic and political damage for Britain. At the same time, the UK will need to reach mutually beneficial economic and trade agreements with the EU.

That may be much harder than anyone thought this past summer. The EU’s 27 countries have consistently been sending a clear signal to London that it should not expect any favors for leaving Europe. Look no further than this week’s statements by Joseph Muscat, prime minister of Malta, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Once again, they made it clear that the UK won’t enjoy the same benefits and perks from the EU once it leaves.

 Also read Russia Direct's report: "Brexit: Is Europe unraveling?"

Thus, Prime Minister May now finds herself in a very difficult situation. She is under intensifying pressure to explain how her nation will implement Article 50, under which Britain will formally exit the EU.

European disintegration

RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau raised the problem of EU disintegration during the plenary session “Russia and the World: Setting Priorities,” which brought together well-known economists, experts and politicians, including Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for The Financial Times, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

What is more ominous – the future life of the EU without the UK or the complicated process of Brexit itself? This was the key question that seemed to hang over the speakers during the first day of the forum.

As Wolf pointed out, Great Britain has perennially been “in the zone of instability” in its relations with the rest of Europe, with the UK having always been “a semi-detached” member of the EU with its own interests and reluctance to share the Union’s major objectives. This reality contributed to the Brexit. The migration crisis was the final straw that made the exit from the EU possible, according to Wolf.

Meanwhile, one of the speakers, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the vice-president of the European Parliament, regrets seeing “the motherland of European liberalism leaving the EU.”

Yet Vaclav Klaus, the former president of the Czech Republic (2003-2013), who also took the floor during the session at the Gaidar Forum, makes no bones about his views: He welcomes Great Britain leaving the EU. Moreover, he sees it as a “symbolic rejection” of what he calls the undemocratic, flawed and stagnating, ossifying bureaucracy and the decline of the European Union. He hails the referendum and its results as a gesture of freedom and awareness.

Wolf doesn’t agree. According to him, the key danger of Great Britain leaving the European Union is its deleterious effect on European institutions. It might undermine the stability of the EU as well as its currency. And an unstable Europe could be a burden for Russia rather than an asset, according to Wolf.

The Kremlin and Brexit: Winner, loser or neither?

When asked if Russia benefits from Brexit and a weaker Europe, Wolf said, “It depends what you mean by benefit.”

As Wolf notes, if the Kremlin seeks to be strong relative to its neighbors and “push them around,” it would be rational for Moscow to be interested in the disintegration of Europe and the weakening of other global stakeholders. After all, if the EU weakens, China explodes, and the United States disappears, “Russia will be the most powerful country in the world,” Wolf said sarcastically.

“If [Russia’s] aim, however, is a relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous world, in which you could participate, then I think it would be in your interest to keep the European Union together,” he added. “You decide what your national objectives are.”

Read the interview with Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin: "The world after Brexit: From globalization to fragmentation"

Likewise, Lambsdorff believes that it is very difficult to know for sure to what extent Russia could or could not seek to weaken the European Union through Brexit and other possible disintegration processes. While one theory argues that Russia should be interested, given its revisionist aspirations in the international arena, the other theory (which coincides with the official position of the Kremlin) suggests that Russia would like to see the EU as stable and reliable, given its proximity to Russia’s borders.

In fact, a stable Europe echoes the Kremlin’s concept of creating a greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, where Moscow could play a bigger role and greatly contribute to European security.

However, there seems to be a small inconsistency in the Kremlin’s logic. Ostensibly, it is looking for a robust, peaceful and prosperous Europe, yet at the same time, it has no stomach for the very idea of European enlargement and, specifically, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU.

In fact, these exaggerated concerns of the Kremlin, in part, led to the Ukrainian crisis. However, EU representatives, politicians and experts at the forum made clear during the discussion “Europe After Brexit” that Tbilisi’s and Kiev’s bid for EU membership is hardly likely to be approved amidst the crisis of European integration.

“We are now 28 or 27 and a half… and have to agree all the time. … It is difficult enough as it stands,” said Lambsdorff, implying that it is out of the question to talk about the accession of Georgia and Ukraine to the European Union.

Likewise, Vaclav Klaus believes that the concept of EU enlargement is “a lost game.”

“[EU] enlargement was lost, it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Of course, some politicians continue to talk about future enlargement, but, practically, it is a lost game for the imaginable, foreseeable future, as far as I see it.”

That’s why Russia’s fears that its close neighbors and two former Soviet republics, where the Kremlin has been seeking to reclaim its national interests, will become members of the EU and leave the orbit of Russia influence are unfounded. It is, in part, because of Brexit’s impact on EU integration and, in part, because of the ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which Moscow contributed to, according to numerous experts.

For example, British diplomat Robert Cooper points out that although Russia doesn’t see itself as part of the conflict with Kiev, in fact, it plays a very significant role in the war by supporting the Donbas rebels.

“In the Ukrainian crisis at the moment Russia claims that it is sitting at the table as a mediator,” he told Russia Direct during last December’s discussion “Hypocrisy vs. Diplomacy: How Insincerity Undermined the World Order after the Cold War” in Moscow. “I think it is pretty hypocritical because to anybody looking at the conflict, it is clear that Russia is not a mediator, it is a part of the conflict.”

Thus, as implied by numerous estimates of pundits, Moscow’s strategy to keep Ukraine divided works and, in fact, hampers its odds of joining the EU.

Also read: "How the Russian political elite view Brexit"

Nevertheless, those EU experts who took the floor at the Gaidar Forum expressed cautious optimism about the future of Russia-EU relations in the foreseeable future, while downplaying the effect of Brexit on dialogue.

“Relations between Russia and the European Union have been very strong for many years and they will remain strong with or without the United Kingdom,” Jorge Braga de Macedo, director of the Centre for Globalization and Governance at the NOVA School of Business and Economics in Portugal, told Russia Direct.

“The EU is a neighbor to Russia. It is a country that no European can ignore. I don’t see Russia is really interested in creating divisions within that group [of the North Atlantic community — the EU, the UK and the U.S.]. It is not in the interest of Russia to fuel differences where they have not existed since the Second World War.”

Lambsdorff echoes his Portuguese counterpart. “The relations between Russia and the EU should be built on trust, but… the Minsk Agreement should be implemented and the crisis in Ukraine must be diffused and calmed down for Europe and Russia to be able to engage in a meaningful way. And in this situation we should not think in terms of winners or losers. We should think about common interests. And what are the common interests? I think it is a stable Central and Eastern neighborhood, it is a strong European Union  and, at the end of the day, a strong Russia.”