Valdai and EPC think-tanks discuss EU-Russia’s ‘new normal’

The cover of the Valdai report on Russia-EU relations. [Georgi Gotev]

The Russian ‘Valdai Club’ and the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank, failed to agree yesterday (17 May) on ways to move forward EU-Russia relations – instead comparing the ‘new normal’ of the relationship with the grey skies that Brussels residents have no other choice but to accept.

At the joint event hosted by the EPC, the Valdai Discussion Club presented its new report, titled “Russia and the EU: what options for a retuning of relations?”.

The Valdai Discussion Club, established in 2004, is named after Lake Valdai, which is located close to Veliky Novgorod, where the Club’s first meeting took place. The club’s goal is to promote dialogue between Russian and the international intellectual elite.

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The Valdai Club report on Russia-EU relations , written by a number of Russian analysts led by Timofey Bordachev, was presented in the form of a 16-page brochure, describing the state of affairs and formulating six principles which should govern Russia’s interaction with the West.

The initiative, as the authors explain, is an answer to the Commission’s “Five principles” of EU-Russia relations, published in March 2016.

Unlike the EU principles, which include the full implementation of the Minsk agreements on eastern Ukraine and the support of civil society in Russia, the Valdai principles seem to focus on the promotion of the Eurasian union, a project which Moscow sees as a counterpart of the EU, while reserving the right for Russia to work with individual EU member states rather than with the Union.

Fragmented world

Bordachev, who is Programme director of the Foundation for support of the Valdai Discussion Club, said there was a high probability that a new structure of international economic governance would emerge, based not on universal order, but of regional settings. He argued at length about Russia’s plans in setting up strategic partnerships with China, which would lead to a FTA in 15-20 years.

“We are now facing a time when we need to take decisions and we need to talk about these decisions. Because it may be too late in a couple of years”, he said. He added that the EU no longer controlled more than 50% of Russia’s trade, as the figure now was 44%, and Germany was no longer Russia’s single trading partner, it was China, he added.

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Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Russia and Global Affairs Journal, said that globalisation as we knew it was over, and repeated the idea that the world would be fragmented.

He said the universal model was replaced by a much more fragmented world, adding that many examples of that were already visible, starting from Europe and the post-Soviet area, to Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America.

“It’s not about integration any more, if we understand integration as unification. It’s something else, it’s about building very big mega-blocks, groupings of states, which will try to find ways how to co-exist and cooperate”, he said

“What we call sanctions will not be an exception in the foreseeable future, it is the new normal” in the relations between those groupings, Lukyanov said.

“EU will never be like it was in 1990s and in the early 2000s, and the EU will never be like it was envisaged even five years ago”, he said, adding that the “humble ambition” of their report was to suggest that Europe was part of Eurasia, and that Eurasia was changing dramatically.

‘Little Europe’

“We started 25 years ago with the idea of greater Europe, wider Europe, big Europe. Now I think it’s relevant to speak about little Europe, Europe which is losing influence in internationally affairs, and both sides, the EU and Russia, contributed to that massively. It’s really time to start discussing how Europe will survive in a completely new world”, Lukyanov stated.

Fernando Andresen Guimarães, heard of the Russia division in the EEAS, said he saw the report, which he welcomes as what may be Russia’s vision for its EU relations, squarely placed the blame on Brussels for the current state of affairs. He said the report lacked the key acknowledgment that when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, this was a violation of international law and of the European security order.

Andresen Guimarães also argued that the Eastern Partnership policy of the EU is not an imperial policy and that the EU is not seeking regime change or revolutions in Russia’s neighbourhood.

Regarding the comparison of the Commission’s “five principles” with the Valdai “six principles”, he acknowledged that there were “some commonalities” that the EU could pick up on. But the main disagreement, he said, was the issue of Ukraine. Russia must do its path “in and in spirit” in resolving the immediate crisis in Eastern Ukraine, through the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, he said.

Russia should also acknowledge that the EU will not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea, and Russia must accept that the EU will continue to strengthen its relations with the Eastern countries, “as much or as little as each of them will like”, Andresen Guimarães said.

“The suggestion that Russia would seek to fracture the relations with the EU, picking and choosing whether it deals with Brussels, member states or non-state actors would of course not be constructive”, the Commission representative said. He added that Russia should recognise the strength and resourcefulness of a vibrant civil society, and that the EU will maintain its support for civil society as an indispensable element of its relations with this country.

All crises will end, Lukyanov said, and so would the Ukraine crisis, commenting on what Andresen Guimarães saw as absence of the Ukraine case from the Valdai suggestions.

Bordachev said that if the EU reserved itself the right to deal individually with the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia reserved itself the same right vis-à-vis EU member states.

The TTIP challenge

Answering a question, Lukyanov said the outcome of the TTIP negotiations would decide a lot about “dependent, less dependent, strategic, less strategic European Union”. Bordachev added said the major problems for the EU in the next few years is how it was going to solve the problem of solidarity, and of the new shape of the transatlantic relations.

Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for support of the Valdai Discussion Club, wrapped up the discussion. He said that the discussion turned out to be about “the new normal” in EU-Russia relations. “No sunshine, grey clouds, but it’s a normal day. Not very good. Not very bad”, he said, amid laughs.

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