To-do list for Catherine Ashton: EU-Russia relations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“It seems that the strategic interests of most EU countries versus Russia are actually similar,” write Adam Balcer, Adam Jasser and Pawe? ?wieboda of the Polish foundation ‘Demos EUROPA’ in a November paper analysing the task facing new EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in winning the confidence of Europe’s citizens.

“Europe’s relationship with Russia looks like a perfect testing ground for the new High Representative (HR). Nowhere has the lack of a coherent EU policy been so manifest than in the EU’s tortured dealings with its large eastern neighbour, principal energy supplier and former communist adversary. Relations with Russia have been on a downward path for quite some time, hitting a post-Cold War low when Russia invaded and crushed Georgia.

Since then, the economic crisis has introduced a much-needed dose of pragmatism in Russia as it realised its dependence on the West as a consumer of its energy supplies and capital provider was greater than the Kremlin had thought. There seems to be a window of opportunity to translate this more sober view of Russia’s own limitations into a mutually beneficial, pragmatic relationship.

The first step towards such a goal would be for the HR to take stock of how divergent approaches to Russia are in the EU. This does not have to be a frustrating exercise. Despite appearances, there is progress in synchronisation of strategic interests, not least because some ‘hawks’ have become more pragmatic, while a number of Russia’s ‘friends’ have become a little more cautious.

Ultimately, it seems that the strategic interests of most EU countries versus Russia are actually similar, the difference is in tactics and a misguided perception that each major EU power needs its own ‘strategic’ relationship (read energy deals) with Moscow.

The HR should vigorously counter attempts by member states to pursue separate policies with Russia and encourage big players such as Germany, France, Italy and Poland to take advantage of the very institution they created in the Lisbon Treaty. Some palpable anxiety in Moscow that this may indeed happen and limit the scope for playing EU members against one another shows this is a good line to follow.

It would be a deep irony and an early setback for the HR if Moscow’s apparent resignation that the Lisbon Treaty will result in a more muscular EU is not matched by resolve of the main EU players to make it happen. The list of priority issues in relations with Russia is well-known and includes security and reliability of Russian energy supplies, maintaining stability in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood or co-operation in countering nuclear proliferation.

There are three areas where there might be an opening for tangible results. One is the economic modernisation of Russia. Announced as President Medvedev’s objective, it suffers from the lack of support of the vast majority of the state apparatus that feels closer affinity to Prime Minister Putin and who remain attached to a petro-state model of growth (or lack of it). The scale of the possible task in hand is enormous. Russia has 500 mono-cities which depend on a single industrial establishment for survival. It will require exceptional political will and determination to bring about. Europe is uniquely positioned to work together with Russia on this endeavour without creating the impression that it is imposing its position or point of view.

The second major area is energy and climate policy. The EU is aggressively pursuing the policy of building the low-carbon economy, which according to the International Energy Agency will lead to reduced demand for Russian gas. Europe is also genuinely concerned about Russia’s ability to deliver on the contracts which have been signed given the huge underinvestment in the production of gas. The circumstances are therefore conducive to putting the energy relationship on a much sounder footing while continuing to work together on energy efficiency as well.

Finally, the HR should seek to formulate the EU’s response to the vague Russian proposals for a new comprehensive security pact. Such a response should leave no illusions about Europe’s unwillingness to dismantle NATO or to accept “spheres of influence”. It can, however, focus on confidence-boosting measures, resolving frozen conflicts and ensuring better monitoring and coordination in responding to security threats such as terrorism. It also must put the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty back on the agenda.”

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