On November 11, the Kremlins press service announced that the Russia-EU summit, originally scheduled for that day but abruptly postponed at Moscow’s request, would now take place on November 25 in The Hague. Officially, Moscow blamed the decision on the EU’s failure to install a new European Commission: the Russian government said it wanted to wait until a new executive body entered into office. But some politicians, both in Russia and Europe, concede that there are serious differences in strategic outlook between Moscow and Brussels that make the negotiations on key aspects of the relationship particularly difficult.
The centerpiece of the summit was to be progress in the talks on the four “common spaces” with Russia, unveiled with much pomp and fanfare at the May 2003 meeting in St. Petersburg. It was agreed that the four spaces would include economic ties, freedom; security and justice; external security; and research and education. Once agreement on the four areas is in place, the EU hopes to consolidate them into a “strategic partnership” accord with Russia.
It would appear, however, that the EU and Russia have failed to agree on a new cooperation policy to outline future relations. Signs that the talks have stalled emerged last week when EU foreign ministers said it was likely there would be no agreement on a cooperation package with Russia, because Moscow was resisting EU demands to include consultations on foreign policy issues. According to a Commission spokesperson, “There are some areas, to be frank, where we would have wished to see the Russians be more forthcoming.”
One source of tension between Moscow and Brussels, analysts point out, had been the EU’s insistence that the agreements in all four areas had to be linked. In the words of one EU official, the Commission wants the final document to be a “cohesive, comprehensive whole.” In contrast, Russia would prefer to cut individual deals in less contentious areas such as economics or culture. More specifically, the talks showed that Russia and the EU were still far apart on key external security issues that Brussels insists must be an integral part of the accord.
Two fundamental problems in the EU-Russia relationship appear to stand out. First, the general framework of interaction between Moscow and Brussels remains undefined. Since Russia’s top policymakers have repeatedly stated their country’s unwillingness to join the bloc, the EU had invited Moscow to participate in Brussels’ New Neighborhood policy. But most Kremlin strategists view this idea as an “awkward scenario.” They argue that Russia is too important to be bound by an EU formula for partnership that would place it on the same level as the expanded, 25-country group’s other neighbors.
“We believe that this formula does not fit Russia,” the Kremlin’s EU envoy, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told a news conference Tuesday. “The format of relations between Russia and the EU is far broader, deeper, more massive than . . . with all the other EU partners combined,” he said, referring only to EU neighbors. “So for us . . . this suit is a bit tight — it squeezes Russia’s shoulders.”
Second, the Kremlin grows increasingly wary of the EU’s eastward expansion. The powerful economic and political pull from Brussels is perceived as the main threat to Moscow’s integrationist plans in the post-Soviet lands. As Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, noted with undisguised apprehension in a recent policy paper, “We’re witnessing the emergence of a new hyper-power, which, like a gigantic whirlpool, is slowly but surely sucking in our neighbors.” According to Kosachev and other influential commentators, the goal of the EU’s New Neighborhood policy is to “announce to the nations immediately bordering the expanded bloc [the existence of] a zone of its special interests.” Participation in the Euro-Atlantic structures is offered to the CIS countries as some sort of a “cover” from Russia so as to “neutralize its influence,” Kosachev contends. So it is highly symbolic that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, instead of flying to The Hague as planned, is again going to Ukraine today — ostensibly to help prevent this key Eastern European country from slipping into the “EU geopolitical orbit,” should the Western-leaning candidate win the November 21 presidential run-off.
Some Russian experts and policymakers openly speak about the “confidence crisis” in the EU-Russia relationship. In Kosachev’s words, Moscow and Brussels should start building — in parallel to the four common spaces — a fifth space, which he calls the “space of trust.” Otherwise, he and like-minded commentators argue, Russia and the EU will never be able to have any mutually beneficial cooperation.
(Reuters, RFE/RL, November 8; Interfax, November 9; Kreml.org, Gazeta, Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 10; RIA-Novosti, November 11).