When Russian spies were expelled from the Netherlands in October, condemnation of Moscow by European Union countries was swift and unified.
Unfortunately, this show of unity was an exception. The EU’s 28 member states remain heavily divided on their neighbor to the East, despite the European Commission’s attempts to cajole them into a unified approach. With EU foreign policy demanding unanimous agreement, this is a recipe for stalemate.
Supporters of a hardline stance on Russia say the need for unanimity is a crucial weak spot for Europe, one which President Vladimir Putin is only too happy to exploit.
The range of approaches to Russia is certainly broad. Germany, the EU’s most powerful state, sits right in the middle. Fearing economic and geopolitical instability, many in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government want to take a moderate stance toward Moscow, while others see a moral imperative to stand up to Putin’s aggressive authoritarianism.
Large swathes of Germany’s business community want to see an easing of economic sanctions and a strengthening of economic ties. Russian gas supplies, important for Germany’s energy needs, also play an important role. The future of the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would increase Russian gas exports to Germany, remains in doubt.
To the east, the mood is clearer, with Poland and the Baltic states deeply mistrustful of Russian intentions and fearful of Moscow’s military adventurism. To a lesser extent, this is also true of Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with her massive eastern neighbor.
Other EU states, however, enjoy much warmer relations with Russia. There was outrage when President Putin attended the wedding of Austria’s foreign minister Karin Kneissl last summer, at a time when Austria occupied the EU’s rotating presidency. Vienna prides itself on its neutrality and says it wants to play a bridging role. Others regard the country as Moscow’s potential Trojan horse within the EU.
Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus are likewise seen as friendly to Russia, sometimes for financial reasons. Italy has long enjoyed relatively strong ties. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a close personal relationship with Putin. Matteo Salvini, the country’s deputy prime minister and leader of the populist League party, has in the past argued for recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.The move was met with widespread condemnation; Western countries and the EU responded by imposing sanctions against Moscow.
But divisions within the EU make it difficult to maintain coherent policies toward Russia, especially since energy, security, foreign and defense policy are dispersed across several EU institutions and unanimity is often required to act.
Sticking to principles
When Russia seized Crimea, the EU managed to show a relatively united front, which some think discouraged Putin from pursuing further territorial goals. Building on this, the European Commission has established five principles to guide its Russia policy.
First, Russia must comply with the Minsk Protocol, the 2015 agreement which brought about an uneasy truce in the Ukraine. Second, the EU seeks to strengthen ties with Russia’s neighbors, including in Central Asia.
Third, the bloc seeks to reduce any dependence on Russia, for example in energy policy. Fourth, in any dealings with Russia, European interests are paramount. And fifth, the EU will continue to foster ties with individuals and groups within Russian civil society.
For the moment, these principles mean no regular bilateral summits, no movement on visa policy, and no support for Russia in international organizations. The idea is to maintain pressure on Putin, while keeping trade and cultural relations intact. Ultimately, the EU remains Russia’s biggest trade partner, while Russia is the EU’s fourth largest external market.
An EU spokeswoman told Handelsblatt that the bloc will continue to base its approach on the five principles. In other words, wary arms-length relations will persist in 2019, marked by misunderstanding, ambivalence and tension.
Eva Fischer is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels, reporting on EU policy. To contact the author: [email protected].