The Fruits of Strategic Irresponsibility

_ Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Director, Centre for Comprehensive, European and International Studies, National Research University Higher School of Economics. Moscow, 31 January 2019.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The European countries have not been sufficiently responsible in their foreign and domestic policy for so long that it’s bound to have terrible consequences. Some of these consequences could be seen as early as the 2015 migration crisis, but they have since grown into an uncontrollable conflict of all against all. The negative trends are no longer resulting merely in problems that are difficult but solvable; they are giving rise to elements of chaos.

This explains why January was filled with high-profile political events in the EU. The main newsmakers included British MPs, two Italian deputy prime ministers and the Spanish ultra-right, who, for the first time since Caudillo Franco, won seats in the legislature of one of the country’s largest regions, Andalusia. All these events clearly show the enormous transformation (both in scale and importance) underway in Europe – seemingly the most stable region of the world just a few years back.

In the middle of January, the British Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the deal that Theresa May’s government negotiated with great difficulty with the other 27 EU countries. It is a terrible deal. If it gets implemented, Britain will find itself in the position of Turkey, which has been standing in Europe’s waiting room for almost 60 years now, while acquiescing to all the EU Customs Union’s rules. But the EU could not and did not want to make a better offer to London.

Clearly, the original intention of Brussels, as well as Berlin and Paris behind it, was to make the British call another referendum. A second referendum and keeping Britain in the EU is the ideal outcome for the continental part of the European Union. The result would most likely disappoint proponents of Brexit, and the United Kingdom would crawl back to the EU on its knees, making it possible to strip London of its numerous privileges gained during its time in the integration union. Actually, this was the basis of Brussels’ approach when it raised the fundamental issue of open borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The point was to make this possible deal unrealizable in principle, because open borders would mean the de facto loss of London’s sovereignty over Ulster.

A “hard Brexit” with disastrous consequences for the British economy is the other alternative. Theresa May is facing a choice between a humiliating return to the EU and serious economic problems for the country. Brussels is engineering a situation where a state that wishes to leave the European Union is either beset by dire consequences or returns in disgrace. In the case of a second referendum, the 27 EU countries will be ready to provide London with as much time as needed to organize it as they will have the upper hand no matter what. However, Britain will lose the privileges it enjoyed for over 40 years. The situation has turned into a stalemate and the prospect of a hard Brexit is becoming more and more likely with each passing day.

The next episode was the blistering verbal assault on President Emmanuel Macron by the Italian deputy prime ministers and the leaders of the most popular parties in the Apennines – Matteo Salvini (League) and Luigi di Mayo (Five Stars). Primarily to advance their own domestic political agendas, both leaders publicly spoke in support of the “yellow vests” movement – the Jacquerie of the 21st century – that has been blazing in France since November 2018. This has never happened in modern European political history before. As part of their strategic irresponsibility, following the Cold War, the Europeans never thought twice about interfering in third countries’ affairs. However, with regard to each other, there was an unequivocal embargo on any actions or statements which could be interpreted as an attack on sovereignty. In January 2019, this embargo was broken.

That being said, both leaders hardly have any illusions about the “vests” ever being able to achieve their goals. The central goal is expressed in the slogan “Macron leave!” They are simply viewing the domestic problems of the EU country second only to Germany as a way to boost their own popularity in Italy and Europe in the run-up to the elections to the European Parliament. Such an approach is itself an example of the qualitative deformation of political ethics that occurred in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. This ethics is based on the concept of sovereign equality and an understanding that there are things that are much more important than personal political interests and ambitions.

The strategic culture of “old” Europe – as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once put it – did not fall apart overnight. In the mid-2000s, most European states were led by quite responsible politicians. They were responsible enough that the two largest EU powers – France and Germany – spoke out against Washington’s reckless war in Iraq in 2003. But by 2005 already, French President Jacques Chirac light-heartedly sacrificed the Constitution for Europe to meet the national interests of the Fifth Republic and his own personal interests.

In principle, the Constitution for Europe, which was adopted with great difficulty in October 2004, was the most democratic document in the entire history of European integration. It was drafted amid unprecedented transparency and with the input of citizens unlike all other EU treaties without exception, which were the result of intergovernmental dealings behind closed doors. The Lisbon Treaty, adopted as a result of such talks in December 2007, significantly weakened integration.

The statesmen who, albeit as children, were exposed to the horrors of WW II, have now left the political scene, making a crisis of the integration project inevitable. Of course, the structural problems that piled up in Europe over the period of growth and expansion (1985–2007) were much more important. However, it was the personality factor of an entire group of political figures who began to sacrifice Europe’s interests for the sake of national interests which served as the catalyst for the crisis. Hapless British Prime Minister David Cameron, who took the game as far as a referendum on Brexit, which proponents of “leave” won, is the most vivid example. But the list goes on.

Now, this generation can be swept away by new political leaders and movements. European rightwing groups are going into the European Parliament elections as a united front, which literally no one expected just a few months ago. Figures like Matteo Salvini, or the leaders of the French nationalists, are not going to destroy the EU or the Common Market. They want to rebuild it to their liking. For Russia, the potential changes in Europe’s foreign policy matter more than anything else.

The history of European countries’ foreign policy after 1991 is one of insufficient respect for sovereign rights and the interests of weaker or dependent nations. This goes for small and even medium-sized countries of the European periphery, which were supposed to live according to EU rules within the framework of all manner of “neighborhood policies” and strategies based on a Europe of concentric circles. However, this is equally applicable to a nation as vast as Russia. Until the negotiation process between Moscow and Brussels petered out in 2011 and formally ended in 2014, Russia was required to adopt the European rules of political and economic organization, as they say, by default.

Was this a sound strategy given that the European Union was essentially unnecessary for Russia’s survival? Moscow needed European technology, investment and, to a certain degree, even loans. But the drama of bilateral relations between Russia and the EU lay in the fact that the relationship was not necessary for the survival of either of the partners, unlike, for example, the EU’s relations with smaller Eastern Europe states and, to a degree, countries of the post-Soviet space which could not imagine a strategic alternative for themselves other than joining the EU and NATO regardless of the rights or terms they would enjoy. But this rule did not apply to Russia. And Europe could not offer any relationship other than that of lord and vassal.

But this is just part of the European foreign policy crisis. The internal political crisis may prove to be much more important, even dangerous, in the long run. Now, there are reasons to believe that it will lead to fundamental changes in the architecture and nature of European integration which is the most outstanding achievement of the political history of sovereign states – a project based on renouncing the use force to resolve conflicts and respecting the sovereign rights of its participants. Will the new Europe be more peaceful or more dangerous for its neighbors? This remains an open question.


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