Russia and EU: towards new constructive relations on a shared continent

Submitted on Fri, 06/01/2018 - 16:37

Address by Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the European Union and European Atomic Energy Community, at Cercle de Lorraine diplomatic debate. Brussels, 1 June 2018

Russia and EU: towards new constructive relations on a shared continent

First of all, I would like to thank His Excellency Baron Frans van Daele for moderating today’s event, and organisers of the diplomatic debate for excellent reception and their approval of such an optimistic theme of my speech. I am a born optimist and would like to believe that Moscow and Brussels will really come to constructive relations in the foreseeable future.

However, I have to state with regret that for the past several years we could hardly qualify our relations with the European Union as normal. A significant part of the multi-level architecture of various dialogue formats we had long been strenuously building with Brussels today stands idle. This causes damage to both Russia and the EU. It is European businesses that are feeling its effect most acutely. Their representatives who are probably more aware of the situation than political leaders, have been outspoken on these issues for quite a while.

Therefore, I consider our today’s debate at Cercle de Lorraine quite timely. The unique membership of your club, bringing together politicians, businessmen, public officials and scientists, enables us to take a good look at Russia-EU relations in all their dimensions.

Following the 32nd Russia-EU Summit in Brussels on 28 January 2014, cut short as EU’s insistence, the European Union derailed the normal pace of political dialogue. The next Russia-EU Summit planned for June 2014 in Sochi was cancelled, regular meetings at the highest level have not been held for four years already. Official dialogue channels such as Russian Government to European Commission talks, as well as Permanent Partnership Council sessions at ministerial level have been discontinued.

On the initiative of the European Union the functioning of most sectoral dialogues was suspended, and back in 2014 we had 17 such dialogues. Today the EU maintains sectoral contacts with the Russian side only on issues that are of practical interest to the European Union itself, and even those are qualified as unofficial.

The sanctions imposed against Russia by the European Union in March 2014 and expanded several times ever since are, in my view, the most unnatural factor poisoning our relations today. Having supported an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine that essentialy brought nationalists and radicals of all types to power in Kiev and having refused to even try to examine the history of the issue of Crimea, the EU together with the US started piling political and economic pressure on Russia under the pretext of alleged “annexation” of the peninsula and “destabilisation” of Ukraine’s South-East. EU’s restrictive decisions and regulations resulted in freezing assets and introducing visa bans for a number of Russian natural and legal persons, limiting access of Russian state financial organisations to EU capital markets, placing embargo on exports to Russia of high tech equipment for oil extraction.

As you see, some politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were wrong, to say the least, in assuming that all these measures would lead the Russian economy  to collapse and Russian foreign policy to change. Moreover, we learned several important lessons from events of the last several years. Above all, we got rid of some illusions we had entertained regarding our Western partners. We realised that we should become more self-sufficient and stop relying on others. As a result we learned to convert challenge into stimulus in our economy, science and, ultimately, defence.

Throughout these years, besides reintegrating Crimea into the Russian Federation, we successfully held Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. In a few days, on 14 June, the FIFA World Cup will begin, and the Belgian national team, the Red Devils, is said to stand a good chance to claim glory.

Most recently, on 24-26 May, Saint-Petersburg hosted another International Economic Forum, Russia’s most reputable annual economic event. The forum proved a success. This year it gathered more than 17 thousand participants from over 140 countries. President Vladimir Putin delivered his traditional speech at the forum, and French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Vice President of the People's Republic of China Wang Qishan and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde joined him on the podium as this year’s guests of honour.

It is true that all the problems my country is facing cannot be resolved overnight. However, industrial production is rising, albeit at a moderate pace. Growth in agriculture is much more impressive. The rouble exchange rate is stable enough. Russian population increased by 3,8 million people within the last 6 years, and life expectancy has grown by 2,5 years to 73 years. In February 2018 unemployment stood at 5%. High-end medical aid more than doubled. The number of Russians regularly engaged in sports activities increased by half to 50 million people.

And as the results of the presidential election of 18 March testify, Russian people support this particular policy aimed at pursuing development and innovation. On 7 May President Vladimir Putin signed a new executive order on strategic national development goals for the period until 2024. We aim to attain nothing less than the following: cut poverty by half, take Russia into the top five largest world economies, raise exports of manufactured goods up to 200 billion euros annually, and build at least 120 million square metres of housing a year. 15 scientific and educational centres are to be established on the basis of universities. Hazardous emissions in the most polluted cities will be cut by at least 20%.

Besides, notwithstanding artificial obstacles in the form of anti-Russian sanctions we have managed to recover, by and large, Russia-EU trade. According to Eurostat, before the crisis in 2013, we exchanged goods for 326 billion euros, and in 2016 that was the worst year our trade amounted to 191 billion euros. Last year this indicator was up again to 231 billion euros, and then 71 billion euros for the first quarter of 2018.

Political dialogue has revived - somewhat. Last year Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini met five times, including an exchange of visits: the head of European diplomacy was in Moscow in April, and then Sergey Lavrov came to Brussels in July. Russia-EU consultations on a range of important questions were held within the recent months, including on counter-terrorism and other security issues, situation in South Caucasus and Central Asia, problems of the Middle East. Consultations on Western Balkans, Council of Europe, OSCE, Asia and Latin America will take place soon. And in three weeks Moscow will host a meeting of political directors of Russia and the EU.

Unfortunately, these events cannot substitute a full-fledged partnership between Russia and the EU that used to be rightfully called strategic not so long ago. And the world is not becoming calmer. New crises add up to the ones that already exist – Syria, Yemen, Libya. It often happens that facing such crises the European Union and our country are “on the same side of the fence” as is the case, for instance, of preserving the Iran nuclear deal after Donald Trump’s decision to pull out. For example, we share a stance on the Middle East settlement: Moscow and Brussels support in the strongest terms a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Jerusalem becoming the capital of both states, whereas Washington is short-sighted enough to consider as non-binding the existing international legal framework for the Middle East settlement enshrined in relevant UNSC resolutions.

Besides, Russia and the EU can do a lot together to stabilise the situation around Ukraine. Actually, it is European countries, France and Germany, that form the Normandy format together with Russia and Ukraine. They do have a significant influence on Kiev that they should have exercised long ago in order to induce the authorities there to finally fulfil their obligations arising from the Minsk Agreements. Europeans are obviously getting increasingly tired and even, I would say, irritated of what is going on or, to be precise, what is not going on, in Ukraine. One can only be disappointed by the behaviour of that country’s leaders, their infinite procrastination regarding implementation of the reforms demanded by the European Union and other Western sponsors, rampant unlawfulness, crackdown on dissent and infringement of national minorities rights.

On the other hand, there is a school of thought that inspite of the Ukrainian situation not living up to what Brussels has hoped and taking into account the amount of efforts and resources already invested in that country, a step-back now would be tantamount to acknowledging that EU policy was wrong and, therefore, Moscow was right.

By the way, you may be interested in learning the genesis of the European Union sanctions policy. One of the reasons to impose restrictive measures was formulated by Brussels as the need to shift the crisis in the South-East of Ukraine into a mode of political settlement. Namely, to put an end to military confrontation and start settling the Donbass issue by political means. For our European Union partners it meant bringing everybody, including Russia, to a negotiation table. And that was done – in February 2015 Russia, represented by its President, took part in the Minsk talks which, following 17 hours of discussions, produced the text of the Minsk Agreements.

It seemed logical that the same day Brussels would welcome their signing and lift the sanctions. But this never happened as the European Union changed its motivation post factum. It turned out that the parties were not only to share a negotiation table and reach an agreement, but also to fully implement it. But then where is the guarantee that when they are fully implemented there will be no additional conditions imposed by the EU, instigated by certain Russophobic member states? Well, as Kiev continues to sabotage the implementation of the Minsk Agreements this question will remain a rhetorical one. A more important question is whether the European Union is indeed interested in it.

By the way, recently there were attempts to persuade us that the EU “Eastern Partnership” project is not aimed against Russian interests. However, we witness quite a sorrow picture in Ukraine that once was presented with a choice: either “towards a bright future” with the West or “backwards to the dark past” with Russia. I do not want to exaggerate, but today there are attempts to make certain countries of the CIS area and the Western Balkans face a similar choice. Aspirations of the Balkan countries to join the EU have never been an issue for us. They are in their own right. We proceed from the fact that the Balkans should not be an area of confrontation, but a platform for establishing mutually beneficial cooperation that would primarily benefit the region.

So, taking into account the whole array of international problems that can be resolved only by combined effort, an extremely serious question arises – what shall we do with the future of Russia-EU relations?

I think that currently a majority of European Union member states are close to accumulating the “critical mass” that would at some point stimulate our European partners to reconsider their stance. One of the most reasonable voices we have been hearing recently that of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel who, in my opinion, gets right to the root of the matter. During a visit to Moscow last January he stressed that dialogue with Russia is extremely important if we are to understand the way we are to follow once more in order to build a fruitful strategic relationship. He also noted that the European Union “speaks a lot about Russia but does not talk to it”. And dialogue suggests involvement of both sides. By the way, when the “Skripal case” was at its highest and London went hysterical in its anti-Russian sentiment Charles Michel pointed to the same gap I have just mentioned: we do not have a permanent channel of high-level political dialogue needed to try to reconcile our differences and move together towards deescalation.

I would also like to draw your attention to the interview European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave the Dutch newspaper “Trouw” at the end of April. It includes many interesting ideas regarding the fates of EU and NATO, but the main thing is that he suggests that one “must learn to talk to the Russians on an equal footing, at eye level.” That is a wise approach. We, Russians, never give lessons to anybody, it is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. But we expect to be treated with the same respect, without lectures or didactic tone.

Our countries, being the pillars of the European civilisation, are destined to interact. We are also united by deep historical ties though they are sometimes controversial. We have close cultural and civilisational bonds. Being a natural part of the European civilisation, Russia is proud of its unique identity forged throughout history. As for values such as democracy and human rights we think they are universal and nations of the world have the right to be guided by them with due respect to their diversity and national specifics. Western countries should not try to monopolise these values and impose their own interpretation of them on others. It may lead to irrevocable consequences. Our multipolar world demands fair competition for ideas and values to the same extent as the one for goods and services. Besides, if the European Union is unable to agree on values with such a close and kindred country as Russia, how can it look forward to mutual understanding with representatives of more distinct cultures of Asia and Africa?

In today’s dynamic, highly competitive and quite dangerous world Russia and the European Union, naturally complementing each other, have no plausible alternative but to cooperate and unite their potentials. This is the reason why we are not removing from the agenda the idea of building a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific, however utopian it may seem today. Within this context there is a relevant topical issue of “integrating integrations” that may start with establishing systemic contacts between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.

We would like to count a lot on a sober and pragmatic approach of European businesses serving as a strong binding factor in Russia-EU relations in today’s quite complicated circumstances. I would remind you that companies from Western Europe were successful in working with the Soviet Union during the most difficult periods of the Cold War, and governments of EU countries actively protected them from overseas attempts to ruin this cooperation. And today no European business entity that has attained strong positions in Russia wants to leave the country. You may ask the Association of European Businesses in Russia for confirmation. Everybody is well aware of the extent to which competitive environment has evolved in the modern world and how much more active businesses from developing countries, especially from Asia, have become in the global markets. Should the Russian market where many EU companies already achieved strong positions find itself on the other side of yet another artificial “wall”, it will be occupied at once by competitors and be lost for a long time, if not forever.

A notion that, I think, everybody agrees on both in our country and in the European Union is that there is no sense in getting back to old cooperation schemes, to “business as usual”. Let us leave slogans or romantic words behind. We should concentrate on addressing current challenges both in bilateral and international relations in a pragmatic way. And the pragmatic basis of our cooperation is still there – Russian and EU interests coincide on many issues in today’s multipolar world.

There is a whole world beyond Europe and Russia. I hope that sooner rather than later all EU countries will realise that. 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 hope that will only be temporary. I want to believe that the current internal reflection of EU member states will result in elaborating some fresh and realistic approaches towards interacting with my country. And when this happens, you will know where to find us.