16th Apr 2021


A tale of two summits

This is supposed to be the era of Europe, isn't it? The bright sunny upland when we show off to the world 50 years of our successful model for transnational co-operation under the rule of law. When we show off our technical skills, our leadership on the environment and international development, our concern for human rights. Above all, our European social model, in all its varieties, that manages to temper market capitalism with social support to produce a democratic, free, open and prosperous society.

Never mind that there are a few with such warped minds that they seek to destroy by violence what has been created largely by the popular will. Against those that preach and peddle terror we need to be constantly on our guard. They believe that a few bloody outrages will send us back to some fundamentalist Dark Age. That surely is plain evidence of their febrile thinking. The truth is that in the general scale of things terrorism poses a danger to individuals unlucky enough to be caught in its explosions, but not to European society as a whole.

The danger of taking things for granted

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No, if there is a danger, it comes from within ourselves. It is that we take for granted what has been achieved and show insufficient willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to defend it. Too often we will the means without willing the ends. When the going is easy, we take the benefits; when the going gets hard, we balk. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Europe's relations with the wider world.

Consider the two great summits the European Union is now between. That with the United States passed off happily. Despite disagreements over human rights, for instance, where Guantanamo and the practice of renditions are deeply concerning, and over climate change, major business was done, progress made, the transatlantic partnership cemented.

But here the going was easy; that cannot be said in relation to Russia, the great neighbour with whom we share this landmass between the Urals and the Atlantic.

The auguries for the summit at Samara, where a new EU-Russian treaty is on the agenda, show little expectation of a promising outcome. Indeed, the summit may even be postponed from its scheduled date two weeks hence, so bleak are the current prospects. Relations with Russia are generally held to be at their lowest, with levels of mistrust unseen since the days of the Cold War. Scarcely a day goes by without some new turbulence.

It is easy to blame this on the Russians. After all, at the time of writing, Russia is permitting a blockade of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, threatening to veto proposals for the future status of Kosovo and has announced its intention effectively to withdraw from the 1990 Treaty limiting conventional weapons deployed in Europe. It also continues to ban imports of Polish meat and to sell oil to the Lithuanian oil refinery at Mazeikiu.

Moreover, there continue to be worrying reports of a decline in freedom and openness in Russian society. In the European Parliament this week MEPs were warning of continuing breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms. According to the NGO Freedom House, when it comes to press freedom, Russia shares with Venezuela the dubious honour of being categorised as 'most regressive.'

Through Russian eyes

The death of Boris Yeltsin, the former Russia President, reminded us of just how like two great tectonic plates are Europe and Russia. Their societies and philosophies have bumped and ground against each other for centuries. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the old Soviet Union, the explosion of democracy and market forces was an earthquake that moved the European fault line mightily to the east. But, the earthquake is over now and the ground is hardening into a new position.

Of course the picture looks different through Russian eyes. Russia was once a superpower; she remembers this when we forget it. In the expansion of NATO, in the current proposal of a US missile interceptor shield not far from her border, in the face of European overtures to its former satellites, Russia feels undermined and threatened. Our neighbourhood policy is not her neighbourhood policy.

We would argue these actions have been misconstrued, perhaps even deliberately. But provoke the bear and it will rattle its cage and this does no-one any great good. The EU needs strong and felicitous relations with its Continental neighbour. In particular the energy partnership is vital to both sides. But Russia's support on climate change, on security issues, on immigration, on fighting terrorism and organised crime is also important. Yet, instead of improving, relations are getting worse.

The problem is not that Europe's policy towards Russia is too strong, but rather that it is weak and incoherent, as Peter Mandelson, the Trade Commissioner, pointed out last week, arguing, 'the incoherence of EU policy towards Russia over much of the past decade has been frankly alarming. No other country reveals our differences as does Russia.'

It is inconceivable to think the President Putin would allow the US Embassy in Moscow to be blockaded. But he can turn away from what is happening at the Estonian legation because he knows that Brussels does not really see this as a European matter. The blockade is happening because the Estonians have moved a Russian War memorial that, to them, symbolises their oppression by the communists. The Russians are upset by this. It is a deeply sensitive, but bilateral, issue.

Brussels should take a stronger line

But the blockade of an EU embassy cannot be simply regarded as a bilateral matter. Brussels should take a stronger hand than now seems likely. An attack on any EU embassy must surely be deemed an attack on all.

Yet Brussels must also be able to reassure Russia that certain EU states will not veto or fail to ratify any new treaty for reasons that, in the broad context, amount to little more than pique. When it comes to foreign policy, Europe cannot afford the luxury of such self-indulgence.

In this all member states need to act in a coherent and grown-up manner, being prepared to make necessary sacrifices to the common good. For only a well-considered European Foreign Policy implemented strongly and coherently, will allow us to defend what we have built over the last 50 years. If we can't hang together on this we shall, as Benjamin Franklin used to say, most assuredly hang separately.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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