As the European Union’s leadership reels from the French and Dutch rejection of the bloc’s proposed constitution in national referendums on May 29 and June 1, respectively, most Russian analysts believe this new development may work to Russia’s advantage.
The resolute refusal to approve the first European Charter in the heart of the so-called Europe Europeanne — two founding members of the EU — prompted a number of top European policymakers to start worrying over Europe’s future. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country arguably has the largest percentage of Euroskeptics, said, for example, that the verdict of the French and Dutch referendums raises profound questions “for all of us” about the future direction of Europe. Many international analysts suggest that, after the failure of the two polls, the debate on building Europe has changed forever.
The strong “No” vote in both France and the Netherlands is explained by the general public’s unwillingness to give more powers to Brussels to regulate everyday life across the continent. The vote also registers public displeasure at the poor performance of the national governments, particularly in the economic sphere where both prices and unemployment are on the rise. But one concern appears to stand out above all: the European Union had grown too fast in recent years.
Now a consensus seems to be emerging within the policymaking and analytic communities that the popular sentiments revealed in the French and Dutch plebiscites have likely thrown into doubt the continued expansion of the EU eastward. The latest opinion polls show that European voters are particularly concerned with the too rapid pace of European integration that last year brought 10 new members into the wealthy bloc, mostly from the poorer parts of Eastern Europe. As there is still no clear-cut idea about where Europe ends, new aspirants continue lining up for membership, including large, poor, and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, the unstable Western Balkans, and, even Ukraine and Moldova. It is highly unlikely, the experts say, that in the foreseeable future Brussels will be inclined to aggressively champion the EU eastward expansion, given the predominantly negative public attitude toward such policy.
Moscow’s political pundits, who believe the failure of two constitutional referendums in Europe will give Russia some strategic breathing space, broadly share this conclusion.
For quite a long time the Kremlin has failed to see the EU as a political entity in its own right. This perception started to change only with Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power. But then, as some political thinkers argue, it was too late, as the European bloc was already prepared to massively expand eastward. Russia soon recognized that its largest economic partner could also be an assertive geopolitical competitor as the Russian and EU “neighborhoods” began to overlap. Furthermore, during the latest accession wave, the EU was joined by some East European countries that, Moscow believes, harbor strong anti-Russian feelings and are not interested in rapprochement with the former “occupying power.” The pernicious role these new entrants play within the EU is twofold, Moscow analysts argue: they negatively affect the bloc’s overall Russia policies and they seek to geopolitically undermine Russia by lobbying the European aspirations of the countries that are still members of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States, such as Moldova and Ukraine.
The two referendums’ outcome is read by Moscow strategists — and with no small satisfaction at that — as a slap in the face of this “New Europe,” which is so disrespectful of Mother Russia. Maxim Yusin, head of the Izvestiya foreign desk, has expressed Russia’s unmistakable resentment very eloquently. Why, he asks, would an ordinary European from a core EU country want to have anything in common with, for example, “Poland and its boundless geopolitical ambitions that are not backed by strong economy, or Latvia with its thousands of [Russian-speaking] ‘non-citizens’ and the marches of the SS veterans, or Romania with its horrible corruption, or Albania with its appalling poverty… or Turkey with its Islamists that win parliamentary elections and its Kurdish separatists, or Georgia with [its unresolved conflicts in] Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or Moldova with its Transnistria?”
For the majority of Russian analysts, the European sentiments that were displayed in the French and Dutch polls are a timely warning for the “revolutionary” leaders in several CIS states, who, Yusin caustically remarks, were too quick to put out EU flags in their offices. Now they will have to rid themselves of illusions, as the wealthy bloc will not open its doors for them for at least the next 20 years, “all the desperate efforts of East European and Baltic lobbyists notwithstanding.”
Over time, the Kremlin has become increasingly wary of the powerful pull the EU has started to exercise in what Russia holds to be its traditional zone of influence. Thus, the Russian political elite will likely benefit if the EU integration process grinds to a halt, suggests Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies. For us, he adds, the deceleration of the EU enlargement process is a plus, for now Russia will be able to focus more on domestic problems and, possibly, on its own integration schemes and stop complaining about “cunning Europeans” who “seek to take everything from us.”
(Gazeta.ru, Politcom.ru, Kreml.ru, May 30; Vremya novostei, Izvestiya, May 31; Financial Times, June 1)