Future of the EU – Russia relations

_ Igor Ivanov, President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004). Berlin, April 6th 2016.

I would like to share with you some of my ideas regarding the future of the EU – Russia relations.

We have to recognize that the period of the Russian-EU relations, which lasted for more than twenty years, ended. It had its logic, dynamics, its driving forces and its stakeholders on both sides, but now we have to turn the page and to start a new chapter. Neither Russia, nor Europe should be a hostage to our common past.

Of course, many of us can feel nostalgic about the heydays of cooperation between Moscow and Brussels. Politicians from my generation invested a lot of time and energy in working on “four spaces”, cooperation roadmaps, the Partnership for Modernization and other projects that were never fully implemented. The current reality is not what we hoped for twenty or ten years ago.

We should not overdramatize the current situation. Not all the relationships in this world work out – neither between people, nor between nations. Today, the most important and the most urgent thing to do is to learn our lessons from the last twenty years and to set a realistic course for the future.

Let me start with a couple of questions that, in my view, deserve serious consideration.

First, we all understand the importance of a dialogue. Without communicating to each other, there is no way we can reach any agreement, even a limited one. By the way, the English terms “dialogic” and “dialogism” often refer to the concept used by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his work The Dialogic Imagination. For Bakhtin, all language — indeed, all thought — appears as dialogical. This means that everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. In other words, we do not speak in a vacuum – if we want our words to have any sense at all.

But what kind of a dialogue should we have between Russia and the European Union? Prior to the Ukrainian crisis, we used to have two EU-Russian summits a year, not to mention numerous lines of communication on lower levels. In fact, the European Union had more formal meetings with Russia than with any other non-member state. It appears that these multiple channels of communication have not helped us to avoid many misperceptions, ungrounded expectations and illusions on both sides. Which means that we should think not only about restoring the dialogue, but also about how to make this dialogue more efficient in future.

Another important matter to consider is the future institutional framework of the relationship between Russia and the European Union. It is not likely that in any foreseeable future the two sides will be ready to sign a new Basic Agreement to replace the old one. We should be looking for more flexible ad hoc arrangements to cover specific areas of cooperation involving as little bureaucratic complications as possible.

Today they talk a lot about ‘selective engagement’ as the defining principle for our future relations. I do not like this term because it implies a ‘situational’ approach. Today you can engage the other side in one area, tomorrow – in another one, the day after tomorrow you may select something completely different. ‘Selective engagement’ might be a smart tactics, but is not a replacement for a long-term strategy. I hope that Russian and European think tanks can go beyond ‘selective engagement’, focusing on most important areas of common or overlapping interests.

As a rule, national interests remain stable for a long period of time, because they are determined by such factors as geography, history, natural resources, traditions and so on. A change of the leadership, even a change of the political regime does not necessarily lead to a radical shift in national interests. If we analyze fundamental interests of Russia and that of the European Union, we can conclude what kind of ‘engagement’ we need and what we can afford.

Likewise, I would avoid talking too much about ‘trust’ between Russia and EU. Trust is critical in relations between individuals, but in relations between states we should probably more emphasize the need for predictability. Predictability, in its turn, results from a better understanding of each other’s motivations, concerns, expectations and priorities.

For example, in the West they often argue that Russia is unpredictable, that the Russian foreign policy is a policy of surprises and so on. But if you read carefully foreign policy documents and statements of the Russian political leadership since the beginning of the century, you will find there a lot of consistency and continuity. Back in 2007, in his famous Munich speech, Vladimir Putin expressed his frustration with the Western, mostly US, foreign policy and warned about potential consequences of the Western unilateralism. Unfortunately, at that stage nobody in the West was ready to listen or to react to this speech in a serious way.

During our recent meeting with European colleagues in Moscow, as a response to our very mild criticism of the so called “Mogherini Plan” toward Russia, Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas made a fair observation. “Nobody prevents Russia from offering its alternative plan, – he said. – Then we could build the dialogue on the basis of the two approaches”. I fully agree with my European colleague. It is always easier to reject something than to propose alternative options. However, to reject something upfront means to choose a death end alley. Russia and the European Union had many opportunities to confirm this evident truth in course of the long history of their relations: too often we rejected proposals from the other side and too seldom we tried to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

It goes without saying that it is up to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to come up with specific proposals and plans for the European Union. But we, as independent experts and intellectuals, could also articulate some ideas for further consideration. Let me offer three principles that could guide our attempts to reach better understanding and to start moving ahead in specific areas.

First, we have to agree on what should constitute the basis, the foundation of our relations in future. I have already had a chance to express my view on this matter: the relationship should be based on our respective national interests.

If this is the case, we have to define areas, where our interests coincide, overlap or diverge, where a compromise is possible and where it is not. The sooner we define our positions, the more predictable our relations are likely to be in future.

Second, we have to single out priority areas of cooperation that have a strategic meaning for both sides and that call for consolidation of our efforts. For instance, I tend to believe that cooperation in such a burning problem as the problem of refugees can still be considered tactical or situational, while cooperation in the implementation of joint research and development projects belongs to strategy. We need to identify specific areas of mutual strategic interests in security, economic, humanitarian and in other dimension.

Third, one has to have efficient bilateral mechanisms capable of assisting our cooperation, including monitoring the implementation of decisions made, identifying bottlenecks and stumbling blocks, generating new ideas and proposals for next stages of cooperation. I do not refer to erecting a new bureaucratic machine, not at all. This goal may be assigned to task forces, staffed with high level officials from the EU Commission and the Russian Delegation to the European Union in Brussels. As for summits, they can be arranged once a year or as the need might be.

As you can see, I have not managed to come up with five principles. I hope that my colleagues can contribute additional proposals to our discussion.

Source: http://russiancouncil.ru/

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