Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Opinion

President or foreign minister - who should talk to Medvedev?

Listening to an analysis of the Russian presidential election, I heard the interviewer ask who would now be handling Russian foreign policy? Would it be the President - the newly elected ex-Chairman of the Russian state energy giant, Gazprom, whose name was lost to Hillary Clinton the other day - Mr Dmitry Medvedev? Or would it be that prime ministerial power behind, under, over, around, and beside the President's throne - Mr Vladimir Putin?

The government spokesman muttered something safe, as spokesmen are wont to do. Under our constitution, he said, the President deals with foreign policy while the Prime Minister (that is Mr Putin) deals with domestic matters.

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  • "Who, in practice, will actually be responsible for foreign policy in the post-Lisbon Treaty World of 2009?" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

We shall have to wait to see what happens in practice but only the bright and naively optimistic can surely imagine that the Putin finger will, not only be in every domestic pie, but on every foreign policy trigger as well. If Mr Putin deems it appropriate to reduce Ukraine's gas supply by a further 25 per cent - as happened this week - I doubt that Mr Medvedev will be in much of a practical position to do anything about it. That is, if he wants to continue to enjoy Mr Putin's company. You do not rise to be head of the KGB, as Putin did, by being indifferent to what happens around you.

In the circumstances, Hillary Clinton's choice of the epithet, ‘whatever,' when she couldn't remember Mr Medvedev's name exactly, seems appropriate. I suspect that should she become the US President in November, it is Mr Bare Torso himself to whom she will want to speak, rather than to ‘whatever.'

But before we Europeans shake our heads and tut-tut (and after all the congratulations to Mr Mevedev and the hoping that his election will usher in a new, warm period in EU-Russian relations, there is a very great deal to tut-tut at in Russian politics and not only Mr Putin's flagrant warping of the Constitution and suppression of all viable opposition) we could well turn the question back on ourselves and ponder who, in practice, will actually be responsible for foreign policy, on our side of the fence so to speak, in the post-Lisbon Treaty World of 2009?

Who will have the job of dealing face to face with Mr Putin and Mr Mevedev over energy security, border control, trade, missile sites, nuclear installations, climate change, extradition matters, exploitation of the Arctic, the Caucasus, Serbia, the United Nations, and so on?

Who will handle the relations between democratic Europe and despotic Russia; between two nuclear armed continents that share a long border? Will it be Europe's Foreign Minister designate under the Lisbon Treaty, Or will it be the President of the European Council?

The question matters. Especially when dealing with a resurgent and increasingly undemocratic Russia that is more than ever inclined to use its energy resources to bully its way in the world. When a former President of the Soviet Union lectures the current Russian leadership on democracy, as Mikhail Gorbachev did in ‘The (London) Times' this week, you know matters have come to a sorry pass.

Europe's gas supplies are threatened, yet again, by Russian action in the Ukraine. And Russia can get away with such behaviour because Europe's nations have yet to learn that it is better to have a strong foreign policy that delivers 80 per cent of what you want than a weak policy that delivers 100 per cent, but whose very weakness makes it, in practice, unimplementable.

In the absence of a coherent European foreign policy (look how split Europe is over Kosovo, over US missile defence bases, over gas pipelines) Russia naturally finds it easy to play one country off against another. Nothing unites us quite so well as our disunity.

But a strong European foreign policy will require leadership and diplomatic skills of the highest order, both to secure the policy at home and then to put it across abroad. As the Constitutional Convention of 2003 foresaw, Europe does need someone to speak with both personal and constitutional authority on Foreign Affairs.

Should this person be the (so-not-called) Foreign Minister - or should it be Europe's President, the man or woman whose task it will be to coral the member states, pushing the agenda along in the manner of someone first among equals?

At present, of course, there is no EU President as such. The Lisbon Treaty creates a new and, as yet, undefined post. Foreign Policy is split between the High Representative (Mr Solana) who works for the member states, and the External Relations Commissioner, Mrs Ferrero-Waldner. These two posts will be combined into something which, in practice, will be a quasi-Secretary of State role. Mr Solana (for he is the favourite) will then have a foot in both camps.

But a Secretary of State is a Secretary of State. He or she acts on behalf of the head of state. Now the European Union is not a state; it is a partnership of states that wish, ostensibly, to align their foreign policies to achieve goals and influence which they could not expect to achieve, in this global world, by acting alone. But if the partnership is to find a voice and then speak with authority, it needs a strong President.

Just having a strong President, though, is not enough. Russia practices, we are told, ‘sovereign democracy,' and the difference between this and everyday democracy has been described elegantly by Timothy Garton Ash as the difference between a jacket and a straitjacket.

Vladimir Putin may have been prepared to bend the constitution and engage in practices so anti-democratic that election observers feel they cannot operate in Russia, so great are the restrictions placed upon them. But Europeans beware! Our own democratic credentials at the Continental level are wafer thin; some would say non-existent.

Europe's President will be appointed; not even indirectly elected. As will be the Foreign Minister. Are their democratic credentials, therefore, any better than those of Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin? If our enlarged Europe is to pursue a united and successful foreign policy, she must not fall into the Russian trap of becoming another ‘sovereign democracy.' Criticising Russia here may be another case of pots and kettles.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

Disclaimer

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

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