_ Dmitry Suslov, deputy director at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the Higher School of Economics and the program director of the Valdai Club. Moscow, October 2016.
The Russian government is promoting the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which started functioning on Jan. 1, 2015, as a key regional integration project. Russia is positioning the EAEU as a pillar of the newly emerging reality in Eurasia and would like the EU to accept integration opportunities with it. However, the EU is not in a rush to embrace the EAEU or to start economic cooperation.
Dmitry Suslov: Well, in my view the major obstacle and perhaps the most important one is the unwillingness of the EU to recognize and accept any kind of different integration project in Greater Europe other than the European Union itself. Because of geopolitical reasons, the EU basically considers itself the only pole of integration.RD: What do you see as the main obstacle for cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union?
According to the EU, all European countries, including Russia (as well as other countries in the post-Soviet space), should orient on the EU, should develop their relations with the EU based exclusively and entirely on the EU’s normative, regulatory and political basis. Even the model of relations with Russia that the EU is offering is basically an association, even though the European Union does not call it that.
Against this background, the emergence of the Customs Union in 2010 and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 represented a challenge to the EU. The challenge compelled the EU to accelerate its policy in order to draw the post-Soviet countries into its integration orbit, to pull them out of the Russia-centric integration orbit. This seriously derailed those Russian efforts to establish the Eurasian Economic Union, which actually resulted in the Ukraine crisis.
Unfortunately, up until now, none of the mainstream European politicians, parties or political movements is ready to reject that policy. Therefore, the only positive model of relations with Russia and other member states of the EAEU is EU-centric; that implies participating in the EU-centric subsystem of the international system.
RD: Then, what is the alternative? From what you’ve said it is either everlasting confrontation or the EAEU eventually falling under the influence of the EU.
D.S.: That’s exactly what the EU is trying to implement now. Some of the politicians in the EU, for example, Jean-Claude Juncker [President of the European Commission] and Frank-Walter Steinmeier [German Minister for Foreign Affairs], do not exclude relations between the EU and EAEU if Russia implements certain preconditions.
This is, of course, unacceptable. In the Russian view, those relations should be established because of the very existence of the EAEU, because it has become a reality, not because Russia should behave in this or that way.
But even those politicians, when they are talking about establishing EU-EAEU relations, mean that the EU will eventually swallow the EAEU. What they see in front of their eyes is their experience of relations between the EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The majority of EFTA members (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Sweden and the UK) ultimately left it to join the EU.
Unfortunately, today the EU does not see a third option. There is either competition with Russia and the EAEU or cooperation. The former option includes encouraging EAEU member states to change their minds and develop integration projects with the EU. The latter option would basically anticipate a profound change in Russia that the EU sees as inevitable. This would bring Russia back on what the EU views as the right course of development.
So, this is the paradigm that programs the policy of the EU towards the EAEU and towards Eurasia as a whole. It also determines the EU’s responses and reactions to some activities that emerge there, such as coordinated development of cooperation between the EAEU and the Chinese economic project One Belt One Road. The EU does not take it seriously because it is convinced that sooner or later, regardless of everything, countries involved in that cooperation will reorient towards the EU.
RD: What is the best-case scenario for EU-EAEU coexistence?
D.S.: Well, I believe in a couple of years, the EU will start changing its mindset because of the internal situation in the EU and a changing international environment that is no longer in Europe’s favor. Internally, the EU is going through one of the most profound transformations in its history because of the German leadership. Externally, the EAEU is getting stronger.
So, although I doubt it is a very realistic one, the best-case scenario would be full international recognition of the EAEU. That would happen because of an agreement with China, which is in fact, currently going through negotiations, because of its pending agreement with ASEAN and MERCOSUR. That will ultimately make the EAEU an inevitable reality – an entity that is institutionalized and internationally recognized.
The EU would then start relations with the EAEU on trade and regulatory practices, which are the areas where their competences converge. An even better scenario would be that the EU and EAEU will elaborate and agree upon certain rules and regulations vis-à-vis those countries that are between the EU and EAEU, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
That requires an elaboration of the common rules of the game that are not imposed only by Russia or only by the EU. That would basically solve the issue of the tug-of-war between the two sides and put an end to their competition. But it would be very difficult to implement given another factor, which is deepening rapprochement and even stronger integration between the EU and the U.S.
I am convinced that after Brexit this factor will become even stronger. After the UK leaves the EU, the U.S. will look for a replacement for its “Trojan horse” in the European Union. Actually, it already made its choice and it is Germany. Being the economic leader of the Union, Germany will be the prime provider of American influence and will be the major partner of the U.S. As Germany is interested in transatlantic integration, if the EU signs the TTIP agreement with the U.S., it will be very difficult for the EU to establish ties with the Eurasian Economic Union.
RD: You also mentioned that the Eurasian Economic Union is currently negotiating agreements with China, as well as with ASEAN and MERCOSUR. Don’t you think that those negotiations are being conducted from the position of weakness, out of necessity, as Russia and other EAEU countries have no prospects in Europe?
D.S.: I disagree with that. I do not think that the EAEU is negotiating with China or with ASEAN because it is compelled to do so, given its isolation from the West. Absolutely not. Those Russian experts or politicians who are propagating such a vision actually undermine the EAEU.
I am convinced that the Eurasian Economic Union negotiates with China and ASEAN because of the global tendencies and realities, because the global center of gravity is moving towards Asia-Pacific, because Russia’s integration into Asia-Pacific region and development of Siberia and the Far East is a necessity of its own sake, not because our relations with the West are good or bad, but because we really need it in the first place. Besides, this is the stimulus for economic development – this is the way to be present in the region where the economic and political future is.
Of course, the Chinese understand that Russia has less room for maneuver now, so they may impose less advantageous terms for cooperation with the EAEU. However, according to Russia and the EAEU, such cooperation is still needed now.