The EU?s decline as viewed by Russia

It's always good to know what Russia thinks of you, especially when it may have a point

Director, Wider Europe programme

This piece is part of Nicu Popescu’s EUobserver blog.  

I started this blog a few months ago with a post entitled “Is
the EU a mistake of history?
” where I argued that many, if not most,
EU-watchers and policy makers in Russia think the EU is a temporary phenomenon
after which Europe will return to power-politics among nations-states and
‘Concert of Europe’-style diplomacy.

It is always useful to know what others think of the EU. Here is one more
opinion from Russia:

The European Union
(EU) is growing weaker as an actor in foreign politics. The EU common foreign
and security policy is still at its infancy because of the diverging interests
of the European Union member states, and their reluctance to increase defense
spending and shoulder responsibility for keeping up international peace and
security. For this reason, the EU cannot be viewed as significant player in the
world’s political and especially military-political arena.

This is from a new paper on Russia’s Interests
in Relations with the US
from the very influential, respected and
mainstream Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy (SVOP), co-authored by
Sergei Karaganov, Dmitri Suslov and Timofei Bordachev. The paper mainly
concerns the US,
but provides a glimpse on how Russian elites see the EU and the eastern neighbourhood:

“Evolution of the
post-Soviet space, which is Russia’s
main foreign policy priority. Russia
is interested in reintegrating of this space. It wants the majority of CIS
countries to take part in the Russia-oriented security system (CSTO), and its
integration project (EurAsEC). It is also interested in a leading role in the
CIS countries’ energy complex.”

“Russia’s vital interests include preserving a de
facto predominant influence in the territory from Belarus
to the Caucasus…”

‘declinistic’ views of the EU are certainly exaggerated. For example, Andrew Moravcsik gives a rather
upbeat story of EU’s performance in times of crisis: ‘Today, it’s clear that
the crisis has renewed European solidarity and seriousness of purpose. Europe is stronger than ever… The leading nations of Europe did not lose their nerve, and they did not work
only to protect themselves, as many pundits predicted. Instead, they rushed to
save their neighbors.’ But none of Moravcik’s claims refer to foreign policy.

Interestingly, back in 2005 a group of the 23 most prominent Russian experts
on the EU, lead by the same Karaganov and Bordachev who wrote the above report,
had an entirely different view of the EU. In a ‘situation analysis‘of
EU-Russia relations published in January 2005 they argued:

The EU is a viable
project… it will widen and deepen. The EU acquis, norms and political culture
will be increasingly influential in adjacent territories and in the long-term
on all the western post-Soviet states. This changes the context of almost all
the issues facing Russian domestic and foreign policies…’

(‘Russia should look
for allies among EU member states as well as EU institutions, and create
‘coalitions of the willing’ to further EU decisions which are favourable to

Most experts (80%)
agreed than in the long run (15-20 years) Russia could raise the question of
joining the EU… Such a possibility would arise… because of the cultural and
geopolitical realities. It will be difficult for Russia to develop and even survive
in the current and future international context. The south is increasingly
unstable, and a close union with China is impossible for a number of
reasons. A majority, if not all the western and south-western former Soviet
countries are joining or will join the Euro-Atlantic zone and the sphere of
attraction of the EU…’

So why is there such a change in how the same Russian experts see the EU in
2009? The price of oil played a role in boosting Russian self-confidence, and
of course constitutional failures played a role. But more important were two
other factors. First, is an almost chronically lack of
EU unity
on Russia
on way too many crucially important issues. Second is a rather sclerotic
neighbourhood policy where EU member states are quite reluctant to practice
what they preach in terms of contributing to conflict-resolution, promoting
visa-liberalisation or support for democracy.

The problem is not only whether EU foreign policy in the Eastern
neighbourhood is effective or not per se. EU policies in the region
are very effective in the economic sphere – trade balances with all of the
Eastern neighbours (except oil-exporting Azerbaijan), are hugely in favour of
the EU, and the neighbour’s economic interdependence with the EU is growing by
the year (see page 38 of the recent ECFR report on
the Eastern neighbourhood). Now, the EU is a bigger trading partner than Russia for all the Eastern neighbours (Ukraine, Moldova,
Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia), except Belarus. But EU’s economic
achievements have yet to turn into political relevance.

The problem is that external perceptions of the EU determine the policies of
external actors vis-à-vis the EU. Russia’s
perception of an ‘EU in decline’ defines Russia’s dismissive views and
assertive policies vis-à-vis the EU.

Such a perception is not just Russian arrogance. The EU itself has the
foreign policy psychology (and instincts) of a small power. And Russia has the
psychology of a great, even rising power. The result is a crisis-prone
relationship between Russia
and the EU. : A relationship in which Russia constantly has the
propensity and the incentives to test EU’s limits. Thus, EU’s perceived
irrelevance creates problems for EU’s partnerships in the region – with Russia and the
Eastern neighbourhood countries.

In tough international environments, reputation is a foreign policy resource
in itself. And the EU’s external reputation as a meager foreign policy actor is a
serious problem. The EU’s current mixture of self-congratulating views on the
success of the ‘European model’ and half-hearted political investment in EU
foreign policy is not enough to promote European interests and values.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Director, Wider Europe programme

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