Will Brexit make the EU more pro-Russian?

Jean-Claude Juncker, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at COP21. Paris, November 2015. [European Commission].

Asked if Brexit will make the EU more pro-Russian, international experts with different backgrounds approached by euractiv.com were not unanimous in their assessment. However, all said that without the UK, the EU will be weaker internationally.

Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies and former EU Ambassador to Moscow, said that Brexit would tilt the EU toward a softer stance vis-à-vis Russia.

Emerson cited the heavily-read article in the Guardian by David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary, who said that those who will celebrate the morning after a British vote to leave will not be Germany, France or the rest of the EU. It would be Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, and perhaps Donald Trump.

Emerson pointed out the the Litvinenko affair, which has helped position the UK amongst hardliners in the EU, vis-à-vis Russia.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Russian secret services, who received political asylum in the UK, fell victim to radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. Subsequent investigations by British authorities into the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death led to serious diplomatic difficulties between the British and Russian governments.

Contrasting ends of the spectrum

Among the anti-Moscow hardliners in the EU is Poland, a country marked by the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which some 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were executed on the orders of Stalin.

In contrast, member states such as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria have always been considered pro-Russian. In recent years, a rapprochement with Russia has been visible under Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán, as well as in Slovakia under Robert Fico. But even France is seen as accommodating to Russia, and found it hard to cancel a sale of Mistral-class helicopter carriers because of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

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Regarding Germany, the country appears to be inhibited by its recent history to strongly oppose Russia. It is also seen as being too friendly to Gazprom, and support for the Nord Stream 2 project has become a divisive factor in the EU.

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“The UK tends towards the harder end of the spectrum of EU member states, not as deeply so as Poland or the Baltic states, but with much less weight given to commercial interests than in Germany or Italy for example. The Litvinenko polonium affair also introduces a fair amount of political poison into the relationship. So overall, the weighting of views in the Council of Foreign Ministers would be tilted a bit towards the softer end of the spectrum,”  Emerson said.

Morgan Palmer, a visiting scholar at the SWP Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argued that Brexit served Russia’s overarching goal of weakening the EU. Officially, Russia denies pursuing such goal.

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“It is well known that Russia would prefer to deal with the individual nation states of the EU separately rather than as a collective unit. Russia’s preference would be division and less integration of the European member states,” Palmer said.

The analyst further argued that Brexit could start a trend of member states questioning their own membership.

“There have been articles and discussions of the possibility of Poland and France succumbing to the same cries for a referendum that Britain is now in the process of and perhaps more would follow this domino effect depending on the outcome of a Brexit and the success that it has in re-establishing itself outside the EU. The looming threat of another Scottish referendum on independence if Britain does decide to leave could also provide a further catalyst for the splitting of individual member states resulting in further divisions which may well be beneficial from a Russian perspective,” Palmer said.

In the case of Brexit, Germany would have even more influence, he further argued.

“The loss of a significant contributor to the EU budget, compounded with the fact that France is in real danger of an economic recession, it is likely that Germany would gain even more influence over the EU. There has been much debate about whether Germany can try and maintain its position as a country between East and West. Yet, it was Germany that called for intervention in the Ukraine conflict, Palmer reminded.

But he said that a lot depended on Germany assuming real leadership,

“Thus, Germany could in fact create strong resistance to Russia’s relations with Europe. This, however, depends on whether Germany would choose to lead Europe to further integration upon the exit of Britain, or permit it to continue coping with crises but not solving the underlying problems,” Palmer concluded.

Roman Rukomeda, an independent analyst in Ukraine, said that Brexit would not necessarily make the EU more pro-Russian, but in any case, the Union would become weaker. He referred to the recent Dutch referendum against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement as an early warning of further disintegration. He also hinted that Russia was pushing in this direction with money and covert activity.

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Dutch voters on Wednesday (6 April) rejected a European pact with Ukraine in a referendum seen as a barometer of anti-EU feeling, dealing an embarrassing blow to the government in charge of the rotating EU presidency, sending shockwaves throughout the Union.

“Brexit can become the real starter of the EU’s disintegration process. After the referendum in Netherlands on the Ukraine-EU association, Brexit is pushing the trend on European Union’s internal conflict. No doubt it is done with the help of Russian influence, especially political, financial and informational resources. The issue of the UK referendum, irrespective of its result, is already making EU weaker as a political player. It has negative impact on EU’s ability to deal with Russia and it is giving the Kremlin the assurance that its divide-and-rule tactics are quite effective,” Rukomeda said.

The Ukrainian analyst said that this does not mean that the EU will necessarily be more pro-Russian. “It will just be weaker to react on continuous Russian pressure and attempts to create as many conflict lines inside EU as possible. The European Union will not become more pro-Russian. It will just become less pro-European,” Rukomeda said.

He further referred to the issue of EU sanctions against Russia, seen by Ukraine as vital for leveraging the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

“It also will give good ground for many Russian friends in France, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Italy and some other countries to feel that it is time to push on Brussels for taking away the sanctions against Russia. After, it may happen that the EU will finally lose its mandate to proclaimEuropean values and human rights as its highest priority. Instead, it will become clear that only profit is the main value of many European capitals,” Rukomeda said. He added that for Ukraine, it was better to have no illusions and be able to defend itself by all possible means.

Danila Bochkarev, Senior Fellow at the East-West Institute, sees Brexit as unlikely. But in the event of Brexit, he sees the ties between the UK, where a large part of the Russian elite has invested its wealth in real estate, becoming even stronger.

“I think Brexit is a bit too theoretical to discuss it at this stage, especially in the foreign policy area. My take is that nothing will really change in an unlikely event of Brexit. I see only ties between Moscow and London getting stronger – indeed despite often harsh rhetoric and serious political disagreements the financial link between the UK and Russia is strong and will get stronger in case of Brexit”, Bochkarev said.

He did not anticipate major changes in EU-Russia relations, and stressed that UK-Russia and the Russia-US relations had more relevance in geopolitical terms.

“The UK, as a member of the UN Security Council and a member of nuclear club is and will be an important interlocutor for Russia. As for Ukraine, I think the resolution of Ukraine crisis is more affected by the changing dynamics in the US – Russia relations, than by Moscow’s relations with Brussels,” Bochkarev said.

Piotr Kazczynski, a Polish-born analyst with vast Brussels experience, was even more pessimistic, pondering the ultimate disintegration of the EU itself.

“Brexit impact would have a terrible impact on EU’s capacity worldwide,” he told EURACTIV.

“First, inside of the EU, it could trigger a domino effect (eg in the Netherlands or Finland… or even in France in 2017).

“Second, it would substantially diminish the EU’s clout, be it political (such as transatlantic relations would now be largely based on Germany-US ties) or military (the UK’s military capacity can be only matched by France in the EU).

“In effect, it would further push EU into internal turmoil without much capacity to deal with any major international matters. Effectively this could mean that the political Europe, if it meant a power to impact world affairs, is gone, and Europe is at best relegated to be a secondary regional actor.

“At worst, it could enter a path of disintegration.”

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