EU-Russia: avoiding new failures

Commentary

The biannual EU-Russia summit begins on 26 June in Siberia. Can the EU take advantage of the opportunity to restart the relationship, or will it fall victim to the divisions that have plagued it in the past?

For once, the bi-annual EU-Russia summit on 26-28 June in Khanty Mansiisk is well-timed. After several years of increasingly frosty relations, genuine opportunities exist for a new start.

The first opportunity comes from Dmitry Medvedev's presidency. He has hardly repudiated the Putin era, but the EU can be encouraged by his early talk of a rule of law and his apparent desire to modernise Russia. The second opportunity comes from the launch of negotiations on a new EU-Russia agreement (PCA) on the 4th of July. Russia has made it clear it does not want a conditional agreement focusing on human rights, but the EU has the strategic advantage of knowing it is the natural partner for a Russian modernisation drive that will require a massive programme of investment in infrastructure and energy supply, and complex institutional reform.

But these opportunities can easily be missed if EU member states continue to be as divided as they are today. Poland and Lithuania may no longer be threatening to veto the beginning of negotiations, but the structural problems of the EU-Russia relationship have not gone away, particularly Russia's preference for bypassing Brussels with bilateral deals and disputes that undermine trust between EU member states. If the Union enters into negotiations unprepared, it could end up worse off than before, and strengthen Russia's perception that it is weak, inconsistent, unpredictable and incapable of serious negotiations (as the Russians say, ‘nedogovorosposobnyi').

Bilateral disputes are becoming increasingly frequent. They are no longer just isolated rows in Vilnius or Tallinn, countries with deep-rooted historical fears of Russia. Half of the EU-27 have had a serious dispute with their Russian neighbour in the last four years. Some have received considerable publicity, like the Litvinenko affair in Britain; others seem trivial, like timber taxes in Finland; but in most cases there has been limited solidarity among European governments.  

EU member states have also increasingly gone bilateral with controversial deals, usually in the energy sector, that other member states have seen as a breach of solidarity and trust.

The lack of prior intra-EU consultation often leaves everybody worse off. Germany and Russia are still struggling to build the North Stream pipeline against the scepticism of everyone else in the region. On the southern edge of Europe, the South Stream pipeline not only challenges Nabucco, the project that would link Central Europe to Turkey and the Caucasus, but gives Russia room for manoeuvre to play EU member states off against each other over the route and location of gas distribution hubs for the pipeline. Unlike EURO 2008 where the Russian team has advanced by fair means, Russia is currently playing Austria vs. Slovenia, Hungary vs. Austria, and Bulgaria vs. Romania.   

The rising sense of frustration has left some European governments tempted to use nuclear options like vetoes, and other governments exasperated at their use. These problems are far from over. Just because the PCA negotiations now seem likely to start, they may not necessarily finish.

The EU can only use the new opportunities in EU-Russia relations if it works to overcome these mainly internal problems. Before the EU can work on the EU-Russia relations, member states have to fix the way the Union develops its policies on Russia. Surprise bilateral deals and disputes are often self-defeating. Few European leaders like learning of new pipelines or new rows with Moscow from the newspapers.

From now on the EU-27 need to consult more often on what happens - for better or worse - in their bilateral relations with Russia. Such early warning will help build greater solidarity and ensure that the negotiations on the new EU-Russia agreement are kept insulated from bilateral disputes. More ambitiously, greater trust among EU member states will help build a more positive relationship with Russia. A more united and predictable EU will be better placed to agree cooperation with Moscow on everything from energy to joint peacekeeping missions.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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