No Europe without Russia
– I am delighted to have an opportunity to talk to the young generation of EU citizens – today’s students, tomorrow’s leaders in business, civil society, national and supranational political and administrative institutions.
– I believe it will be mutually useful to exchange views on Russia – EU relations, discuss our common history and try to look into our future – common, I hope.
– I have been dealing hands-on with various aspects of interaction between Moscow and EU Member States and EU Brussels for over 20 years now. To my utter regret, I often notice that many foreign partners’ thinking is confined to the frame of a “genuine” versus “not genuine” Europe. Some even believe the European Union is Europe and assume the right to speak on behalf of the whole continent. I am sure Ghent University teaches geography well and you are well aware that we live on a shared continent. And it is not only a landmass that we share. It is common history, culture and a wide network of human contacts. Moreover, we share responsibility for its future.
– I do not doubt that your history teachers are highly professional as well, and you know that it was the first Russian Emperor, Peter the Great (from 1682 the Tsar of All Rus’, from 1721 to 1725 Emperor of All Russia) who deserves much credit for rapprochement between Russia and Europe. Back from his long trip across West European countries, including here, in today’s Belgium, and in the neighbouring Netherlands, he undertook major reforms in his own country, founded a new capital – Saint Petersburg, actively instilled secular culture among Russians and, in his own words, “cut a window to Europe”. There is a theory that without thinking twice he also copied the Russian flag from the Dutch one, just switching the colours.
– But only few know that long before that there had been another tsar who took interest in what was going on in Western Europe – Ivan the Fourth, unfairly branded in the West as Terrible (Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 and the first Tsar of All Rus’ from 1547 till 1584), at one point even proposing to Queen Elizabeth of England. Moreover, I would even call him one of the first human rights defenders (though he may have been cruel enough towards his own subjects). After the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572 he, for instance, wrote to Austrian Emperor Maximilian II: “Christian sovereigns should deplore that the French king ran such a barbarity over so many people and shed so much blood”. He also expressed his protest in a letter to King Charles IX of France.
– But let us yet come back to the 21st century. The world is undergoing rapid changes just beneath our eyes. Various terms may be used – polycentric world, multipolar world, or, as the EU Brussels bubble prefers to call it, multilateral world – the essence remains the same. All sensible people realise that no one can rule the world on his own – be it a single state or a group of countries like the one we call the “historic West”. We are witnessing the emergence of new centres of economic growth, financial power and political influence: China, India, Brazil and other Latin America countries, African states. Metaphorically speaking, they are spreading their shoulders and will definitely demand more influence on international affairs, and quite soon.
– Key issues of international agenda are of course still discussed within the G7, but the impact of such discussions is no longer the same. This idea was well illustrated by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker who said back in 2016 that should the composition of the G7 be defined by the level of economic development, in twenty years no European country would qualify to be a member.
– For nine years already we witness the G20 gaining prominence, giving countries from regions other than the EU and the US more opportunities to influence global decision-making. I believe it is a healthy trend: the more centres of power, the more balanced the international situation.
– We can also state with confidence that having entered the second decade of its activity, BRICS, being one of the pillars of an emerging fairer polycentric world order, plays an important stabilising role in global affairs, for which it has all the necessary capacity. Besides representing 42 per cent of the world’s population, the group accounts for almost a third of the global GDP at purchasing power parity. Last year BRICS already outperformed G7 on this indicator.
– Meanwhile it is evident that the end of Western hegemony in the world may cause stress and frustration among the nations that for long centuries have been dominating political, economic and cultural life of the planet, defining the development of civilisation. From a psychological perspective, one can easily understand attempts to stall the process of multipolarity establishment and complicate comprehension of this objective reality.
– I would cite just one example: for several years already the EU and its friends from across the Atlantic Ocean have been calling upon everyone to respect a “rules based order” instead of being guided by international law. In practice it means that the West can acknowledge Kosovo independence when it wants, without any referendum, but if the West is not interested, no referendum in Crimea and implementation of the right to self-determination would mean a thing.
– By the way, I cannot fail to note with regret that neither ordinary people in Western Europe, nor even its political elites have proper knowledge of the background of the Crimean issue. It even seems they are unwilling to learn. Hopefully, this observation does not apply to you.
– I would also like to recall that the European Union was founded as an instrument to prevent another war in Europe, and in this regard its founding fathers had a lot to be proud of. It was only much later that the EU transformed itself into an image of a “shining temple on top of the hill” that blinded those looking for something to lean on in an era of post-Cold War confusion. But this evolutionary stage has also become history. Today the European Union is largely back to its initial mission, becoming again an instrument for matching the diverging interests of its Member States.
– At the turn of the century the European Union found itself at a “bifurcation”: it could either engage in deepening integration, or enlarge. And at that point a wrong choice, in my view, was made to favour enlargement. It appears to have been guided by tactical political considerations rather than economic development goals. Though at that time we, as friends, warned the “old Europeans” of the difficulties awaiting them in such case, first of all in relations with our country.
– In the end the trend of pursuing tactical political targets resulted in the fact that by now the enlargement process has run out of steam, as confirmed by the situation around the start of EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
– What would be the most logical continuation for the European Union then? How to avoid becoming a “backyard” of global economy and politics in the coming decades already? I believe there is only one answer – uniting Europe, and rather Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok, in other words “integrating integrations”. That would mean bringing together economic potentials of the two coexisting integration projects on our continent – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the EU. It is worth noting that this recipe was formulated way back in 2005 at a Russia-EU summit in Moscow which adopted a Road Map on Common Space of External Security.
– I would allow myself another insight into history. On 4 July 2008 negotiations were launched to conclude a New Russia-EU Basic Agreement (NBA). This document was supposed to supercede and replace the Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1994. That one is of course still in place, but does not fully reflect current realities any longer.
– In 2008-2010 twelve negotiation rounds were held on the New Basic Agreement, approximately half of its text was agreed on. However, soon after work on the document started, events got ahead of the talks pace: 2009 saw the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty introducing considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the European Union. The mandate to negotiate the New Basic Agreement on behalf of the EU was transferred from the European Commission to the newly established European External Action Service.
– Also, after 18-year long deliberations Russia became a WTO member in 2012.
– Meanwhile, the Eurasian integration process took off and Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus created a Customs Union and a Common Economic Space. Later those evolved into a full-fledged Eurasian Economic Union, and two more countries – Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – joined the founding troika. Thereby, a range of competences and functions directly linked to the scope of the future agreement with the EU was transferred to a supranational level – primarily to the Eurasian Economic Commission. All these developments resulted in a technical pause in the negotiations declared by mutual consent of the parties, later, alas, evolving for political reasons and on EU initiative into a freeze that continues to this day.
– At the same time life itself shows that we are better off together than apart. The economic potentials of Russia and EU countries complement each other quite well and are mutually reinforcing. Meanwhile, in their relations with Moscow it would be too narrow and short-sighted for Brussels and EU Member States to consider our country only as a source of much-needed raw materials or as an additional export market where EU norms and standards could be expanded on a unilateral basis in a way similar to asymmetric association agreements. Perception of Russia as a transit territory to be crossed as quickly as possible to reach other markets does not fit our vision either.
– In this regard I would note that, for instance, our cooperation with China on developing infrastructure projects in Eurasia is developing on different principles, and in the near future will result in a number of new points of economic growth in Russia, EAEU and on our continent as a whole. I believe that business and political leaders of EU countries should not regard strengthening of Eurasian connectivity with suspicion and ideological bias.
I should state that a sober-minded segment of public opinion in this part of Europe gradually started to realise that the EAEU is not a political project launched by the Kremlin to resuscitate the Soviet Union, but a genuinely functioning organisation of economic integration with an international legal personality that efficiently exercises to the best possible extent the functions of supranational regulation. For the European Commission to successfully defend the interests of European businesses and citizens, its employees should cooperate with their counterparts of the Eurasian Economic Commission and work together on facilitating mutual access to each other’s markets. It took the European bureaucracy plenty of courage and time to recognise this obvious fact.
– At the same time in its contacts with the European Union Russia has always been consistent in promoting the philosophy of equal and mutually beneficial pan-European cooperation. Unlike some others, we have never made our partners and neighbours on the Eurasian continent face an artificial choice – either to be together with Moscow or with Brussels – and always considered it to be a sovereign right of any independent state to develop multi-vector cooperation – with due regard, of course, to their international obligations and norms of international law.
– Moscow does not claim the right to be considered as the sole key ally the Europeans should be looking to. We do not impose our goods on the EU, nor do we demand that they abandon commercially beneficial investment and infrastructure projects with other important partners. Quite the opposite, we advocate an inalienable right of every state or integration union to carry out a multi-vector policy guided by its own economic interests.
– Naturally, we are closely monitoring the evolution in vision by EU Member States of building a dialogue with Russia. To their credit, it was not that difficult for many European politicians to realise genuine intentions of the previous Ukrainian leadership who had been poisoning Russia-EU relations for many years. Therefore, a number of EU Member States consistently advocate revival of cooperation with Russia that has “shrunk” because of the so-called sanctions regime, both in international affairs and trade and economy sphere. But they are facing resistance by a small but very aggressive group of countries that for the sake of their petty vested interests are by all means opposing the return of Russia-EU bonds to a trajectory of steady development.
– In such a situation European institutions trapped by “European solidarity” are confined to formulating a position on our country on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Therefore, we are observing with great interest the course of discussions within the EU on its own future, and in particular on eventual reforms that would allow reflecting consensus in such a way that a minority would not be able to block interests of the majority. Perhaps, something would change for the better when those who decided to exit the EU would no longer participate in determining EU policy on the Russian track.
– I would like to note that we find quite substantive the analytical approach towards Russia displayed by French President Emmanuel Macron that stands out as different from superficial Russophobic scenarios articulated sometimes by others in the EU. He, as I recall, suggests laying a new basis to ensure long-term interests of his country and its EU partners by building an architecture of security and cooperation in Europe with Russia rather than maintaining antagonism towards Russia. In essence, it goes well together with the words pronounced long ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Greater Eurasia is not an abstract geopolitical scheme, but without any exaggeration, a future-oriented civilisational project” that will “change political and economic landscape of the continent, bring peace, stability, prosperity and qualitatively new living standards to Eurasia”.
– I believe all sensible people understand that with neighbours – sharing a house or a continent – it is better to cooperate rather than to be at war. As far as Russia and the European Union are concerned, we do not need slogans, catchwords or romantic verses, it is time to concentrate on pragmatically addressing current tasks both in bilateral and international relations.
– Constructive and uniting prospects of our cooperation – from trade to combating new challenges and threats – are genuinely enormous. We just need to manage them correctly. I hope our European partners will gradually realise that until they are ready for this both Russia and the European Union will be in a lose-lose situation. I want to believe that internal reflection of EU Member States will result, inter alia, in elaborating certain fresh and realistic approaches towards interaction with us.