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EU and Russia in search of a new modus operandi: Time is running out

Jakub Kulhánek Jakub Kulhánek / Ed. 15. 2. 2016

More than two years have passed since the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), a cornerstone of the EU-Russia relationship, expired. Having come into force in 1997, the PCA in many respects fails to reflect the new dynamics of EU-Russia relations. Although an extension provision contained in the document allows for its annual renewal, both sides are well aware of the pressing need to introduce a new treaty sooner rather than later. The reasoning behind this is that a new PCA is likely to give a new substance as well as structural overhaul to the way in which Brussels and the EU interact with each other.

In contrast to the currently much touted rapprochement between Russia and the West, Brussels and Moscow continue to wander aimlessly as to what direction their relationship should take. No wonder then that despite all of the outpouring of good will from both sides, however sincere or contrived, staggeringly little progress has been achieved in advancing the process of introducing a new PCA. Granted that so far the pushing-of-the-reset-button has been narrowly confined to international security cooperation, the fact that the EU-Russia relationship continues to languish constitutes a worrisome trend. The fact remains that should one embrace the very essence of the reset as an effort to cure a deep sense of distrust, one has to realize that any attempt for a longer lasting fix in relations between the West and Russia is doomed from the very beginning unless a robust culture of mutual interdependence is introduced. The deepening of the level of interdependency in all possible aspects of their relationship will quite literally condemn Russia and the Union to cooperate while containing potential disagreements. This has to include a broadest possible agenda for cooperation going much further beyond what has thus far been merely a security-centric, consensus-building exercise. Therefore, the West and Russia need to focus more on boosting political dialogue, people-to-people contacts, scientific cooperation, and mutual trade and investment.

With the majority of its population living west of the Urals, more than half of its exports bound for the EU, and strong cultural and historical links with the rest of Europe, Russia remains first and foremost a European country. Irrespective of its global foreign policy ambitions, now just a residue of its Cold War statutes, Russia’s interests lie predominantly in the post-Soviet space and Europe. Given their interaction in a wide variety of political and economic spheres, a stronger partnership between the EU and Russia can act as a vehicle for engineering a more durable thaw in Russia’s uneasy relationship with the West.

EU-Russia relations have been on a downward spiral leading to a growing skepticism about the future course of their partnership. Some of the major irritants in their relationship have included the Georgian war, the geopolitical tug-of-war over Eastern Europe, Brussels’ concerns about Russian high-handed energy diplomacy, and so forth.
That said, however, the price of inaction seems to be far greater in this regard. If not anything else, Russia and the EU simply live too close to each other and becoming isolationist is not a viable option. At the moment, circumstances are in many ways ripe for a bold move; while the West expresses its determination to go the extra mile to mend fences with Russia, Moscow appears ready to reciprocate. Furthermore, the fact that some of the thorniest issues have effectively been put on the back-burner, albeit they will not stay there for long, provides a historical opportunity to reinvigorate the EU-Russian relationship.

This will by no means be an easy undertaking. And, of course, it will depend on the political acumen and imagination of the leaders in Moscow and Brussels. In order to take EU-Russia relations to the next level of greater interdependency, Moscow and Brussels need to demonstrate their resolve to build a more stable and mutually beneficial relationship in no uncertain terms. For sending an unequivocal message about their readiness to deepen ties, reaching an agreement on a new PCA might be a way to go.

Yet, conflicting views and misperceptions continue to plague ongoing talks on a new PCA. What does Russia want from the EU? In a way, for the Russian leadership a new PCA is less about content but more about form, whereby Moscow would like the new PCA to grant the EU-Russia relationship a statute of a strategic partnership. This will in turn help raise Russia’s profile as a country to be reckoned with. Still trying to come to terms with the loss of a great power status after the end of the Cold War, the Russian leaders, either consciously or subconsciously, demand that their country be perceived as a returning world power. Although this might seem quite pretentious, the fact remains that the question of respect, or a lack of it, remains an inherent part of Russian foreign policy. In more practical terms, the Russian position is that the less emphasis on democracy, human rights, and meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs in general, there is, the better. Therefore, Moscow is not particularly happy about the EU’s insistence on including some of those issues in its dialogue with Russia and consequently in a new PCA as well. Last but not least, Russia remains adamantly opposed to the ratification of the EU Energy Charter, which it views as discriminatory. Brussels would like to see Russia adopt the Charter as part of a broader deal on a new PCA. Moscow objects to the EU Charter on the two counts. First, the EU Commission’s drive to ban a single company from owning both downstream and upstream assets is seen by the Russian leadership as hugely discriminatory to Russia’s Gazprom, a state-owned behemoth. This unbundling principle enshrined in the document is sometimes referred to as ‘anti-Gazprom clause’. Second, Russia is quite reluctant to let outside companies have unrestrained access to its network of pipelines as demanded by the Charter. For Russia, the ability to maintain complete control over its pipelines is deemed to be of a strategic importance.

As for the EU, the chance of agreeing on a common policy towards Russia remains as elusive as ever. It is correct to argue that the EU’s Russia policy is a clear example of how difficult it is for the Union to find a common language in the realm of foreign policy. Whereas countries like Germany and France are quite keen to develop as close ties with Moscow as possible, some of the new member states, such as the Baltic countries and Poland, say that Moscow should not be trusted. To make matters worse, there is the EU bureaucracy that likes to take up issues of human right violation with Moscow in contrast to a much nuanced approach pursued by the national governments. Finally, the EU for most part is interested in low profile but more complex projects, such as the Northern Dimension (aimed at intensifying cross-boarder cooperation in Northern Europe), environmental protection, university student exchanges, etc. The Russian government, on the other hand, prefers more visible but less practical manifestations of cooperation with the EU, such as issuing various joint statements on international issues.

Where do we go from here? At this point, in order not to lose the momentum of good faith and willingness to move forward, a new PCA agreement should be introduced as a quintessential spring board to intensify further cooperation. And, quite frankly, a more vague text might be much easier to negotiate. To entice Russian appetite the new treaty should offer Russia a strategic partnership in the form of establishing a permanent EU-Russia Council along the lines of the NATO-Russia Council. Alongside a high profile structure of permanent representatives, a number of subordinate working groups and commission should be created to support an expanding EU-Russia dialogue. In return for this rather inexpensive measure, the EU countries should insist on including some sort of societal dialogue that would bring together representatives of civic organization from Russia and EU member states.

In so far as agenda setting is concerned, the EU and Russia have already agreed to a wide range of projects to work on. Therefore, the new Council should have a lot to discuss and reinvigorate the stalled cooperation. The so-called Four Common Spaces agreement, approved by the EU and Russian representatives at their Petersburg summit, provides a set of elaborate roadmaps to strengthen ties in trade and investment; immigration and justice; external security; and research and education.

Furthermore, as their flagship project, Brussels and Moscow may consider establishing a joint ownership with Kiev – this has even been suggested on a number of occasions by the new Ukrainian government – of the Ukrainian pipeline system in revitalizing these vital supply veins feeding the EU customers with Russian gas and oil. By deepening their mutual interdependence, Moscow and Brussels may lay down solid foundations for a more politically and economically harmonious relationship between Russia and the West. And reaching a final agreement on a new PCA may be a crucial first step in that direction.

Original source: EU and Russia in search of a new modus operandi: Time is running out

Europe 667
European Union 380
Russia 202
economy 159
international security 287
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