The Future of E.U.-Russian Relations

Radoslaw Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland

WARSAW — Where is Russia’s European policy heading? To borrow a quip from Mark Twain: predictions are difficult, especially if they’re about the future.

Russia is facing up to challenges — demographic, economic, resource-related. But whether that leaves it ready for internal reform remains to be seen. Working out the response of a European Union that is often divided when facing Moscow may be even harder.

What we now have is a chaotic E.U. policy toward Russia, with some member states holding the others hostage. Surely it is time governments realized that medium- and long-term interests are better served by consistency rather than bilateralism.

Such an approach might actually benefit Moscow. After all, some of our gravest challenges also loom over Russian policy makers. Take demography. By 2030 Russia’s population will be 20 percent smaller, and some E.U. populations also face a startling decline. We therefore face a common problem in trying to stay competitive at a time when the economic pace is being set by China and India.

There are also common economic opportunities. The E.U. is by far the most important investor in Russia, providing 80 percent of cumulative foreign investment, while Russia is the E.U.’s third most important trading partner. We also have common security interests. Russia remains a key geopolitical actor; its constructive involvement is needed from Afghanistan to proliferation and piracy.

Finally, there is also the sensitive and divisive issue of energy. Russia is the most important supplier to the E.U. not only of gas and oil, but also of coal and uranium. Volatile oil prices, security of supply and environmental impact are all current concerns. Russia too is vulnerable, and will need capital and know-how from abroad to develop gas fields and rejuvenate its creaking infrastructure.

In such an unpredictable environment it is vital that Russia and the E.U. become reliable partners. For that, the E.U. should first try to speak with one voice. Unfortunately, the costs and benefits associated with a united E.U. front do not fall equally. In areas like energy and military cooperation, some E.U. members act unilaterally, but these free-riders can in turn fall victim to other member states in other areas.

To speak with one voice the E.U. should follow three basic rules.

First it should seek an all-encompassing platform of cooperation with Russia, with everybody subscribing to a common list of E.U. interests. That is why we need to stick to the agreed mandate for the European Commission to negotiate a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia.

Second, the relationship with Russia must not be developed at the expense of other partners. Moscow should not be fast-tracked at the expense of Ukraine or Moldova. Third countries are nobody’s “privileged sphere of interest.” The E.U. should stand by its values and established norms of international conduct.

Lastly, we need to send Russia a clear message about what the E.U. really wants. What’s at stake are the rules by which our relationship with Moscow will be governed. If we blink, let us not be surprised by the consequences.

The E.U. has long hoped that the Russian authorities would embark upon far-reaching, fundamental reforms, leading to the development of a genuine civil society and social and economic transformation. In response, Brussels would extend a lending hand.

Sadly, Russia’s political desire for cooperation seems limited. It cannot be ruled out that reforms will be selective and top-down, with European assistance accepted only if no strings are attached. We must be just as prepared to deal with the latter option as the former.

E.U.-Russia relations are not a zero-sum game. It is in the E.U.’s interest that Russia get richer, that it keep pumping oil and gas. It is in Europe’s interest to support Russia’s modernization; hence Polish support for Russia’s accession to the W.T.O., visa facilitation and educational exchanges.

We need to remember, however, that Russia’s relationship with the E.U. is dependent on positive change within Russia — whether the country’s leaders decide to push toward more competition, the rule of law and more personal freedom. Deeds should follow words, and we should respond accordingly, with good will in proportion to every positive step.

The New York Times

Post-Crisis World Institute