Irony and satisfaction – these are two emotions with which most Russian policymakers and analysts observe the acute identity crisis that the European Union currently finds itself in. Against the backdrop of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ inglorious demise, the steady growth of the EU was seen – until very recently – as a veritable triumphal march. For some observers, the rich bloc was an organization that “had no neighbors but only future members.” But the collapse of the negotiations on the EU budget following the sorry failure of the bloc’s Constitutional treaty has revealed, many international commentators contend, the EU’s deep “systemic crisis” that, in its turn, sparked a heated discussion on the future direction of Europe.
Russian pundits were quick to seize on the opportunity to advance their favorite thesis that the notion of Europe is much broader than what is represented by the 25-member organization. But Russia’s political class itself appears divided over which course toward Brussels Moscow should now take. The stronger nationalist-minded school of thought advocates a tough line seeking to “recoup” the perceived geopolitical losses during the previous period of Russia’s strategic retreat. The minority liberal faction, on the other hand, suggests the current situation opens up a window of opportunity for true cooperation and rapprochement with Europe.
The EU’s present-day troubles, Kremlin-connected strategists argue, stem primarily from the dizziness from success and sheer greed. The political thinkers steeped in the traditions of Russian and Soviet empires know all too well the potential dangers of imperial overstretch. In their opinion, Brussels, whose appetite was whetted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a geopolitical vacuum in what some Russian analysts call the Great Limitrophe – the band of lands squeezed between the former Soviet domains and Western Europe – embarked upon the path of an extremely ambitious eastward expansion. This large-scale integration program has recently been described by one Kremlin pundit as the “[Brussels] elites’ game in the United Europe as a superpower which was about to start the world-wide planning of its policies and engage in big-time geopolitics and global geopolitical games.”
The aggressive enlargement strategy, however, has proved to be a recipe for disaster, some Russian experts contend. First, the EU simply overestimated its absorption capacity and – with last year’s big-bang accession of 10 new mostly East European members — swallowed a chunk it could not digest. Second, the elites’ grand designs appear to have clashed with the masses’ desires as most Europeans, one commentator notes, loath the attempts at building a federal Europe and “want to live in a normal national and sovereign environment.”
It would appear that, geo-strategically, Moscow felt uneasy about the EU’s eastward expansion mainly for two reasons. On the one hand, Russia was clearly excluded from the political process of fashioning a United Europe. But on the other hand, the issue of where the EU’s ultimate eastern limits lie remains moot. For many members of the Russian security community, such a situation was quite uncomfortable. “On Russia’s borders there emerges a super-state – the only political entity in the modern world that is so elusive about the question of where its final frontier will run,” notes the preface to a recently published book with the telling title: The Project of Europe Without Russia.
Russia’s nationalist political thinkers predict the EU will likely follow in the footsteps of the former USSR and ultimately unravel if the bloc continues its policy of “reckless expansion.” They argue that Brussels should understand that it cannot bear the burden of responsibility over the “entire sphere of European civilization” and would be well advised to see that there is another influential player with whom the responsibility has to be shared. “Europe’s future lies not in the boundless expansion of the EU…but in the creation of two unions – a West European one and an East European (Russian) one – which would balance each other and compete in a friendly way,” one commentary asserts.
For their part, Russia’s liberal pragmatists within the foreign policy community say that Schadenfreude at EU’s current misfortunes is plainly out of place. This faction, particularly the experts from the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, say the Russian political class can draw some useful lessons from bloc’s crisis. First, as the weakened Europe is unlikely to successfully play the role of the global geopolitical leader in the near future, it might become even more interested in developing political and economic relations with Russia. Second, of the two models of future EU development – a quasi-federation and an association of states bound together by a set of common rules, values, and single currency – it is the second one that is much more feasible now. But such a configuration of the EU makes it possible for even Russia to join in some distant perspective as, geopolitically, Russia, too, cannot go it alone, given its sharply diminishing population and shrinking share of the global GDP. Third, Moscow should make use of the ongoing search for the EU’s new development strategy and revise its overall relationship with the bloc. The starting point would be the preparation of a long-term treaty on cooperation and rapprochement that would replace the fuzzy and “semi-fictitious” four common spaces.
(Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 2, 21; Trud, June 15; Kreml.org, Russ.ru, June 16; Gazeta.ru, June 17)