Diction on a seesaw: a report on the RIAC conference on EU-Russia relations / Part 1

April 1, 2013

Mr Barroso talks about a partnership of choice, while Mr Medvedev calls for more pragmatism. Discussing their relations, European and Russian representatives were somewhat out of touch with each other at the international conference 'Russia and the EU: potential for partnership?', organised by RIAC and held in Moscow on March 21st



As if a code of conduct had been circulated amongst participants, throughout the three discussion panels of the conference there was a consensus that an enhanced cooperation between Russia and the EU is necessary. Mr Medvedev and Mr Barroso defined the tone of the discussion in their opening speeches: the former talked about interdependence and the latter called for a strategic partnership. The foreign policy professionals that took the stage in the first discussion panel, argued for cooperation mostly on the basis of common security interests. The representatives of the business sphere, that came up in the second one took, as Mr Medvedev, a 'transparent and comfortable business environment' as their basis of reasoning. Whatever the rationale, the desired outcomes are similar: tighter economic cooperation, harmonisation of enterprise legislation, lifting of visa barriers and suchlike.


The other sentiment that overshadowed the whole of the conference was one of euro-optimism. Fearing their destructive potential, Mr Barroso vigorously attacked sceptics in his closing remarks; he argued that the euro was not the inducer but the victim of a crisis that has, regrettably but reversibly, slowed down the integration process. But, he said, the European Union is more robust than it is 'fashionable' to admit, and will be a lot stronger in twenty years' time, to which date he solicited the organisers to invite him to an event of the like. If in a less poetic manner, but Mr Medvedev supported him in his view that the EU will remain a major player, and so did the rest of the participants. This should, however, come as no surprise at a political conference: leaders wishing for the EU’s survival must silence the evil omens.



Of birds and blue skies


In the first session, that assessed the developments since the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 2003, the Russian side was represented by Prime Minister Medvedev and RIAC president and former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. From Europe, on the other hand, a range of old riders of foreign policy were present: Javier Solana, Völker Ruhe, Wolfgang Schüssel, to name only a few. Figures of the past, you might say, but as a Russian colleague remarked in the coffee break: there is no exit from politics.


The far-reaching agreement on general issues was of course a mere façade. The differences surfaced most of all in an oratory that yo-yoed between bids for pragmatism and abstract terms concealing theoretical approaches.


Wolfgang Schüssel, once a great reformer as Chancellor of Austria, headed the idealists. His main points included the importance of a common Weltanschauung and a vaguely defined 'early warning mechanism'. Less abstract and more radical perhaps, he envisaged a bipolar world: ‘there is no G20, there is only a G2: the US and China’. Javier Solana, a great diplomat for Spain, the NATO and the EU, joined Mr Schüssel in his way with words: while his underlining of the importance of a vision was clear, his efforts to differentiate between 'strategic' and 'tactical' trust must have gotten lost in translation.


Paavo Lipponen, the Social Democratic Premier and later Speaker of the Parliament of Finland, made similarly dim but rather interesting points. The expert, who had to give up all public office for signing an advisory contract with the Russian gas pipeline project Nord Stream, vocalised Russia's wish to take part in 'global policy-making'. He referred to the country's 'usefulness' in Afghanistan, but did not explain how he would further involve the country, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in the making of global security policy.


One could argue the importance of a visionary approach to foreign policy. But when the need for cooperation is obvious and its real potential and limits are discussed, it seems that nothing is really said with this conjectural speech.



True grit


But pragmatism and clear words were present as well. François Fillon, who resigned as French Premier last year, urged Russians to give up their prejudice and Europeans to cut back on their immigration-paranoia. Having modestly complimented his French fatherland on its role in bringing about the Russo-European partenariat, he addressed the issue of security: whilst insisting that Europe withdraws plans for NATO missile defence systems in the direct vicinity of Russia, he emphasised Moscow's responsibility in Syria.


And then came Völker Ruhe, always standing out of European leaders with his intelligence and frankness. He recounted how Mr Medvedev, as 'leader of Russia', recently told him that its capital should be moved to Vladivostok. (Uproar in the audience; and Mr Ruhe went on to gently mock the Russian Premier for his habit of frequently changing his title.) Implicit here was the argument that despite the political talk, Russia is not really interested in a deeper partnership. It is a fear that several people I talked to on the sidelines of the conference appeared to share.


Mr Ruhe also warned Moscow that the desired visa-free travel will strengthen civil society, bringing more 'foreign agents' into the country (referring to a law passed in the Duma last July that requires NGOs funded from abroad to register as such).


Overall, it was Silvio Berlusconi's long-time foreign minister Franco Frattini who made the two points which summarised the substance of the session. 'Let's not divide our concepts of global security', 'only a stronger, more united Europe will be a strategic partner for Russia', he said, pleasing the visionaries and the pragmatists at the same time. Bringing aspects on global security closer is what many others had, if in vaguer terms, previously talked about; and it seems indeed necessary for the settlement of the issues of Syria, Iran and North Korea, to name only the most pressing ones.



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