25 June 2018

Europe’s relations with Russia – an alternative to the transatlantic deal?

Ştefan Oprea

Even if the transatlantic partnership is not facing an imminent collapse, the European frustration related to Washington’s recent decisions has reached a new level, which could emphasize transatlantic tensions, thus affecting the bilateral relation in the long term. With security being at the center of transatlantic relations, the possibility is rising that common actions of the United States and Europe against belligerent Russian activities could become dissonant, for an unpredictable period of time.

Image source: Mediafax

[ Romanian Version HERE ]


Recent events are shaping transatlantic relations which are different from those of the previous period. As a result of influence from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, current relations have become more tensioned and difficult, with major effects on the unity of viewpoints in matters of international policy, in security and economy.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its consequences – the Brexit, a slow economic growth, the inefficiency of specific reforms to stabilize the Eurozone and a freezing of the EU’s structural reform – are part of the causes which will give new nationalist forces the arguments to attack democracy, the rule of law and all the other defining values of the European Union. The challenge of threats looming on its Eastern and Southern borders, even if different in nature, and also the lack of relevance of the EU in solving the Syrian conflict (the EU is just a destination for refugees), show that Europe is facing new challenges for which it hasn’t yet found adequate answers.

At the same time, the questioning of the transatlantic security guarantees system, as well as the dangers faced by the global trading system, which is key for Europe, have shaken the economic and security pillars of European stability. Therefore, the Trump administration has given European citizens all the reasons to doubt the US President’s commitments to alliances and international rules.

The emergence of China as a world power, capable of dislodging the global economy’s center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region, made Europe face another perspective: that of falling behind the US and China regards to economy, which is extremely important in the context of the 21st century. In these circumstances, an opportunity has appeared for a “warming” of relations between the European Union and Russia.

A critical an balanced view on the events which have influenced these European developments will help us understand why changes in current international order, a worsening of European competitiveness and a need for internal compromise have begun to undermine the belief in the EU’s capacities to adapt to the new global environment.

The US. Despite the fact that, since he took office, President Trump suggested the perspective of a rapprochement to President Putin, to the confusion of both EU and NATO, later messages of maintaining sanctions against Russia until it pulls its troops out of Crimea has shaped the new administration’s stance concerning Moscow.

The surprising stances that the US took in regards to growing problems around the world have created, likewise, a certain confusion between European leaders, while waiting for a moment of clarification.

The way in which the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement has consequences which surpass local effects, and cause total discomfort in Europe. Bringing forth the issue of trade tariffs creates another field of disagreement with both allies and rivals, making it difficult for governments to comprehend the connection between this type of negotiations and actual policy. The implementation of new tariffs for steel and aluminum presents another clue of the American government’s intentions of optimizing its leverage in the global economy: that is taking on the role of the leader who also makes the rules in the market economy.

President Trump’s suggestion made on June 8, 2018 on the eve of the G7 summit, of inviting Russia to take part again in the reunion, was the most recent stance to create controversies from all members of the body and from the EU Commission president, who took part at this reunion. The fact that, during the meetings, participating leaders expressed disagreement at the American leader’s approach to trade, at his rebuttal of the agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program, and at his decision to leave the Paris agreement for combatting climate change, as well as the fact that the American President stands his ground on raising import tariffs for aluminum and steel, reveal tensions that have marked this Summit. Despite all of this, at the end of the talks, member nations convened to sign a common statement. Unfortunately, a press conference of the host country’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in which he announced the existence this common statement, stirred the dissatisfaction of President Trump, who proceeded to withdraw the US from this agreement; an action bound to hurt the mutual trust between Washington and Ottawa.

In these convulsive circumstances, we should notice the fact that on Friday, June 8, 2018, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford met with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, in Helsinki, to discuss coordination in Syria between the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, and the Russian forces, to exchange views regarding the current situation of bilateral military relations, as well as the current situation of international security in Europe and other regions.

The EU. For the European Union, the meeting[1] between President Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from January of 2017 has brought, from the beginning, extra uncertainty to EU-Russia relations. In addition, taking such a weak stance on the subject of Crimea’s occupation by Moscow could send a powerful signal to populist and nationalist leaders all cross Europe, that they can reconsider their relations with Russia. We judge that, in this context, maintaining a consistent approach on EU security and defense issues, regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine, must go beyond the internal disagreements generated by a confusing rhetoric of some of the member states.

The European institutions made diplomatic efforts to show that Europe can contribute to strategic normalization beyond its borders, and also to important economic projects. As consequence, their response to American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal seems justified, as they perceive they are at the mercy of a state which, by its actions, proves that their efforts do not matter.

Washington’s withdrawal from the joint statement, convened upon at the end of the G7 Summit which took place in Canada, will cause the European Union to prepare countermeasures against US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At the same time, this approach will cause heated declarations and controversy (German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said: “It’s hard, it’s depressing this time, but this is not the end”) and, last but not least, will make Europe commit to a more powerful role in global affairs, even if this will require finding different partners.

Regarding its relations with Russia, Moscow’s contradictory messages about its future ties[2] with the EU and the West cause the EU to heavily review its attitude on the matter. This comes in the context where, at first a few, but now more member states do not consider de-escalation as an essential priority.

This is shown by the recent visits to Russia by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, as well as by President Putin’s meetings with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and with the Federal Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz.

RUSSIA. Moscow plays an important role in its everlasting attempts to find cracks in European cohesion and to exploit in favor of its own economy, by making use of its historic ties and by offering privileged trade and energy agreements.

In the context of global changes, Russia is opting towards closer cooperation with China, even if Beijing appears to not treat Moscow as an equal.  However, from the perspective of a new model of bipolarity against the US, Russia has the European option in sight, even if the continuing sanctions present an impediment.

The recent meeting between presidents Xi and Putin in Beijing, on June 8, 2018, might be a response to diplomatic and economic provocations from the United States, with both of them sharing an opposition to American hegemony.

A consensual stance on maintaining sanctions will be hard to reach. Besides, it is notorious that the EU is, by far, Russia’s biggest commercial partner, accounting for 38.1% of its imports and 44.1% of its exports, despite mutual sanctions.

In this context, for Moscow, finalizing its major contracts with EU states - such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline - becomes an urgent priority. At the same time, the agreements signed for the construction of nuclear plants in Finland (Hanhikivi) and Hungary (near Páks) will create long-term dependencies on Russia, in the fields of technology, fuel and maintenance. More so, Hungary’s dependency will be stronger in adding to it a financial one, as the project is based on a 10 billion euro Russian loan.

If we take into account the fact that, in the speech held on May 7, 2018, President Putin announced that Russia must become one of the world’s top five economies, we can see that the economic option, with all that relates to promoting it internationally, has become a priority for Moscow.

EU-Russia economic ties remain, therefore, powerful and could theoretically make a solid base for pragmatic and mutually advantageous cooperation, even if the economic relation’s balance next is becoming very fragile, when put next to the balance of security between the two.

To explain the statement in the title, I propose a short presentation of the stances that EU member states have regarding this alternative.

GERMANY. The American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal meant for Germany a nodal point of its Community-wide policies, and also of its global ones. In this case, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a realistic and pragmatic stance. As Germany is a powerful economy, the world’s third exporter with almost half of German merchandise traded outside of the EU, it is normal that the wide-spectrum American sanctions on Iran create major worries for German economic and political stability. Angela Merkel has also noted that the situation of the German workforce employed in projects in Iran will be strongly affected. This explains the German chancellor’s reaction of disavowing the American decision.

Even so, after a sudden cooling of German-Russian relations following the Ukrainian crisis, Angela Merkel visits Sochi again, where she meets President Putin. The attention given to the Nord Stream 2 projects confirms Germany’s recent option towards Russia, despite divergent European opinions.

FRANCE. In his attempt to maintain the Iranian agreement, President Macron, a formidable actor within the EU and beyond, suffered a major disappointment after relying on a strong relationship with President Trump.

However, the private meeting between President Macron and President Putin, which happened at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, had on its agenda the Iranian nuclear deal, Russia-Europe relations, the Ukrainian crisis and trade. This comes in the context of a seemingly decreasing support for European sanctions on Russia. Against the background of profound disagreements with Putin over Syria, Ukraine and the supposed Russian meddling abroad, the two presidents only sought to save the Iranian nuclear agreement, marking this as the first time Russia, Germany and France agree on such an important matter – despite the US threatening new sanctions on Iran’s business partners. We should also remark President Putin’s joke addressed to President Macron, “Europe depends on the US for security. But don’t worry, we will help, we will offer security”.

Further on, I will present some aspects which converge towards the warming of the EU relations with Moscow, in the context of the European animosity in transatlantic relations.

The recent meeting of Bulgarian President Rumen Radev with President Putin, in Sochi, justifies to a degree the option that Bulgarian politicians took in favor of closer relations with Russia, but not too close to jeopardize the country’s contacts with the West. Russian-Bulgarian relations plummeted in 2009 when, under Western pressure, Sofia withdrew from almost all of its common projects with Moscow - including the Belene nuclear plant and the South Stream pipeline. However, this has not brought any tangible benefit to Bulgaria and even had some negative consequences (in 2016, Bulgaria paid the 620 million euro it owed Russia because of the built reactors). Bulgaria’s refusal to support Romania’s initiative of permanently deploying a NATO fleet in the Black Sea, and to join its EU and NATO partners in expelling Russian diplomats following the Skripal case, are both convincing examples for the idea that Moscow-Sofia relations continue to warm.

The admiration towards Russia from Greek, Hungarian, Italian and Austrian political groups currently holding power in these states, or from well-defined forces in other EU members, serves to strengthen the belief President Putin has, that EU economic sanctions might be lifted even without a compromise in the Ukrainian predicament.

If we add to this statements by European leaders, such as that of Austrian[3] Chancellor Sebastian Kurz: “We want to be a bridge between the East and the West, and maintain communication channels with Russia”; that of new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that the time has come for an “opening towards Russia”; and even that of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “I think it’s time to reconnect with Russia”, the idea presented in the title becomes plausible.

Unlike these opinions, THE NETHERLANDS has a different stance and advocates reason. Without referring to prior statements or to the impact of the tragedy of the MH17 flight[4], the latest statements of Prime Minister Mark Rutte (June 13, 2018, in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg), shows The Netherlands’ stance on Russia, on the US, but also on other world powers.

He reiterated the fact that the global order is facing challenges unseen for decades; that the geopolitical balance of power is changing; that Russia chose to distance itself from its Western neighbors; that the development of economic powerhouses China and India bring both challenges and opportunities for the EU; and also the fact that the EU’s relations with its most important ally, the US, are no longer obvious.

In these circumstances, Rutte asked the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU body, to react in the face of Russian and even US threats. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Rutte asked all nations to “continue collaborating as close as possible with the US”, which he stated was still an ally.

ROMANIA. In its relations with Russia, not insisting further on the impact made by political, economic and military pressures, Romania, similar to other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, must deal with a Russian propaganda which causes problems within the EU and which could weaken, and possibly even paralyze the EU’s decisional powers.

Although Romania supports maintaining the sanctions, Bucharest wishes for predictable and pragmatic relations, which would allow both progress in solving the Ukrainian conflict, and the preservation of a strategic balance in Eastern Europe.

From this point of view, taking the EU presidency in January 2019 will be a favorable moment to demonstrate Romania’s diplomatic abilities to find a way for a solution to this problem, in the context of the major challenges that Europe faces.

There is no alternative, for the EU, for Romania, to the transatlantic partnership, no matter what offers would come from other directions. Europe can become the world’s biggest trade bloc, but only together with the US it can grow the capacity to answer the challenges of the 21st century.

[1] A result of Budapest’s economic calculations, but without mentioning anything related to the sensible problem of sanctions against Moscow following its occupation of Crimea.

[2] Difficult to accommodate in matters of security, but necessary for its economic growth.

[3] Austria will have EU presidency the second half of this year.

[4] The Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight brought down in Ukraine, in 2014.