The contemporary political discourse in Russia mostly shares the criticism regarding the current state and the future of the EU. This criticism is driven not only by numerous problems which the EU encounters today but also by the dire relations between Moscow and Brussels. While setting the tune for expert and public discussions, official statements are marked by unprecedented toughness and undisguised pessimism regarding a common European future. Under the sway of this rhetoric, most of the Russian experts focus on the multiple challenges that the EU encounters today rather than on the obvious historical achievements of the European project. As a result, such forecasts suggest the EU’s prospects to appear bleak and pitiful.
Still, the Russian academic community has a vocal group of Euro-optimists, mainly comprised of experts who deal with the European issues and a number of liberally-minded politicians from the opposition. It is only natural that the views of the EU shared by this group are drastically different from the official voices. They consider the common European project not only as the most historically successful but also as the most promising for regional integration. While admitting certain problems and crises that accompany the EU’s development, Russian Euro-optimists are still confident that Europe will eventually put the boot on the other foot, benefitting from the crises and timely adjusting the strategy for further institutional development of the EU.
Although both camps of experts differ in their vision of the EU, they concur on several material challenges to the EU legitimacy and its successful operation. It is the response to these challenges that will define the future of the EU. Russian politicians and foreign policy experts highlight the following most pivotal issues:
Poor strategic autonomy of the EU. Russia notes that despite numerous declarations of the need to become strategically autonomous, independent from the U.S., little of this has essentially translated into practice. Moreover, Joe Biden’s coming to power and taking the seat in the Oval Office is frequently interpreted by the EU as that there is no longer need to be more independent. The de facto abandoning of the objective to achieve strategic autonomy, divorcing from the U.S., simplifies the EU’s strategic planning, while also narrowing the room for European policy-making, including with regards to Russia.
Most of the Russian observers believe that Europe will pay a heavy price for such shortage of strategic autonomy, with these costs only going up with the time. In particular, the EU will be affected by the inevitable exacerbation of the Sino-American confrontation as well as the resulting pressure exercised on Brussels from Washington in order to strengthen the common anti-Chinese stance of the West. Amid a more pronounced bipolar nature of global politics, the EU will have to follow in the U.S.’ footsteps, thus giving up its own agency. Projects similar to Nord Stream 2 will no longer be politically feasible. At the same time, reliance on the U.S. fails to safeguard Western unity in the long run: we cannot rule out that a politician similar to Donald Trump may be sworn in in Washington as early as 2024, something Brussels is totally unprepared for.
Loss by the EU of its economic and technological competitiveness. Despite its considerable economic, scientific and technological potential, the EU today is lagging behind North America and East Asia in many key technological areas. If this gap expands further, the EU may eventually turn into the world’s industrial museum. Subsequently, it may be driven to the sidelines of the global economic and technological development. Problems that have to do with the traditional features of the European social model will grow in number—more than lavish welfare programs will see the European workforce become too expensive to be competitive on the global markets. At the same time, its professional and geographic mobility in many EU member states remains relatively low.
For Russia, such negative tendencies within the EU would accelerate the country’s pivot from the EU to China, South-East Asia and other Asian nations. This pivot could get another impetus once the EU introduces more sectoral sanctions against Russia in the area of high technologies or copies similar exterritorial sanctions as instituted by the U.S. In more broad terms, loss by the EU of its economic and technological competitiveness may cast into doubt the value of the European social model as a token of modernity and an example to be followed by other countries, including Russia.
Exacerbation of European unity problems. Russia, just like the EU, warns of some dangerous potential lines of division within the EU to prospectively emerge, such as the divide between “old” and “new” Europe, North and South, bigger and smaller member states, donors and recipients of the EU funding. Brexit has only exacerbated this situation, bringing in multiple imbalances. Further break-up processes may slow the integration down or even turn it back. National identity in many EU member states could push the common European identity to the backburner. Although most Russian experts do not believe that the EU would finally collapse, some predict that some of the functions that Brussels is now endowed with will be recovered by nation states, which in turn would be reinforced through supranational administration bodies.
The consequences entailed by a potential weakening of the EU’s institutions and mechanisms are still a subject of heated discussions in Russia. Some experts believe that Moscow will benefit from such developments as it historically achieved better results from its bilateral relations with Europe’s leading nations, such as Germany, France and Italy, rather when dealing with the European Union as a whole. Others believe that a weak EU, incapable of speaking in one voice, does not fit for the Russian concept of a multipolar world and cannot be regarded as a Moscow’s reliable partner. In terms of security, a weaker EU would inevitably mean a stronger NATO and a more robust U.S. presence in Europe, which does not meet the Russian interests. In economic terms, a weaker EU cannot adequately counterbalance the growing domination of China in the Russian foreign trade.
European isolationism. Russian observers believe that further EU development and its legitimacy can be challenged by the rise of isolationist sentiments in the EU nations and de facto abandoning of an active foreign policy by the EU leaders. The EU nations fail to agree on such burning international issues as Kosovo, Venezuela, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and so on. Further self-confinement would mean that the EU not only gives up its active role in such regional conflicts as Syria, Libya, Afghanistan. This way, the EU will also give up creating and promoting global commons in the area of climate change, global web governance, human rights, food security and many others.
European isolationism will have a two-fold impact on Russia. On the one hand, Russian authorities will be happy if the EU no longer meddles in Russia’s internal affairs under the pretext of protecting human rights and if Brussels abandons its plans to possibly expand to the East in foreseeable future. Once Europe curtails its activity to its East and to its South, this will create more opportunities for Russia in Syria, Ukraine etc. On the other hand, if the EU is relieved of responsibility to develop and promote new rules of the game in important domains of world politics and economy, such rules would be increasingly imposed by Washington and Beijing. We cannot take it for granted that such a change of leadership in global rules-setting meets Moscow’s long-term interests.
Demographic trough and new migration crisis. Russia takes note of the long-term tendencies of a shrinking EU population and a new possible large-scale migration waves to Europe from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Numerous Russian conservative analysts associate the drop in demography with the features of the modern European liberalism, such as same-sex marriages, collapse of the traditional family, loss of faith. Meanwhile, Russia, having abandoned a liberal development model, is still running into even graver demographic problems. Anyway, gradual change in the demographic structure in the EU in favor of European Arabs, European Africans and other non-indigenous ethnic groups can be regarded as one of the most serious challenges to the very existence of the EU and to the future of the European nations in general—especially since there are no optimal models for integration and adaptation of such groups in Europe, at least as of yet.
Russia is monitoring Europe’s experiments to manage international migration and its demographic strategies with particular attention. Conservative analysts regard what is going on in Europe as another reason to restrict migration inflows to Russia (thus avoiding the mistakes committed by Europe). Some believe that Russia has to become a legitimate heir of Europe’s traditional values (such as family, faith, state) which Europe is giving up one by one. For liberals, Russia and Europe are sharing the same demographic problems. On the one hand, it proves that Russia is a European nation. On the other, it necessitates closer cooperation between Moscow and Brussels on demography and international migration.
This text was prepared as part of the international project on the legitimacy issues of the European Union under the German Hanns-Seidel Foundation.