A blueprint for a EU strategy towards Russia was distributed on February 28 at a conference focusing on EU-Russia relations organised by ALDE – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a pro-European platform that espouses neoliberal economics, and support for European integration and Single Market.
ALDE’s proposal calls for the development of a new cooperative EU strategy towards Russia that will allow Brussels to restore Europe’s security architecture and deepen its bilateral relations with Moscow.
While presenting the document at the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, the well-spoken leader of ALDE, said Brussels should find a way out of the current crisis between the EU and Russia. He warned, however, that the development of a new strategy must be based on the principle of conditionality and should not be confused with an appeasement policy.
“The current situation in which official EU-level contacts are frozen in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while some Member States continue supporting active bilateral contacts with Moscow, is not in the EU’s best interests. We have to reshape our policy and refocus our diplomatic efforts based on the principle of conditional engagement,” said Verhofstadt.
The principle of ‘conditional engagement’ promoted by ALDE implies strengthening EU-Russia economic ties based on progress within the so-called ‘security’ and ‘political’ pillars. The authors of the document have linked the resumption of suspended negotiations on visa facilitation and the creation of a common economic zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok with Russia’s full compliance with international law and democratic principles.
EU-Russia ties have been essentially frozen since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Brussels responded to Russia’s violation of international law by imposing harsh economic sanctions on Moscow, which have seriously hit the Russian economy.
Any move towards a sort détente between Brussels and Moscow are hard to imagine under the current political climate, as allegations of continued Russian meddling in European elections continue to come to the public’s attention.
Wolfgang Ischinger, a prominent German diplomat and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, has warned that further delays in establishing a direct dialogue among parties, including the US, may result in further estrangement and even less cooperation on important issues such as international security and the global fight against terrorism.
“We are living at a time when trust has completely evaporated and the risk of an intended escalation is too high. I think that all sides – Russia, the EU and US – have to push for a resumption of at least informal meetings with the participation of the heads of their militaries to discuss the situation,” Ischinger said.
If the EU decides to proceed with an initiative on the establishment of informal meetings which, according to Ischinger, should involve top military officials from the EU, US, and Russia, will not imply that the West wants to appease a bellicose Russia and accept Moscow’s concept of its “sphere of influence”. It will, instead, act as the framework for the type of intelligent diplomacy that the EU desperately needs.
Europe’s division over how to handle EU-Russian relations is partially dictated by the EU’s geographic proximity to Russia’s western borders, as well as Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies. The debate over how to handle the delicate between Brussels and Moscow has already caused a major rift between the Member States over the last 12-18 months.
In 2014, in the months after Russia sent troops into Crimea to force an internationally unrecognised referendum on annexing the Black Sea peninsula and shortly afterwards fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, European political leaders showed unprecedented unanimity when the sanctions were first introduced, going so far as to cut off all official meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some of that sentiment has shifted in the three-plus years since the heaviest fighting last took place in Ukraine. At least six of the Member States – Italy, France, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, and Cyprus – have all publicly called for a phased lifting of the sanctions.
Ischinger, who served as Germany’s deputy foreign minister under pro-Russian former chancellor and current Nord Stream AG chair, Gerhard Schröder, warns that such a division within the EU sends a bad signal to other countries, who may want to exploit European indecisiveness and take advantage of countries who do not belong to either the EU or NATO.
“As long as the EU suffers from different opinions within itself, Russia does not think that we mean business,” warned Ischinger. “We should not forget that there are non-Member State countries that are in-between (the West and Russia) and their security and economic future is at stake…or, to be frank, questionable.”