Editorial Newsletter December 2016

EU-Russia relations: time for a reset?

One of the external threats the EU is confronted with concerns the relationship with Russia. The annexation of Crimea, the interference in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s bombardments in Syria are examples of Russian activities having a serious impact on security in Europe. As a side effect another frozen conflict – in the Donbas region – has been added to the number of frozen conflicts already existing.

Because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in Eastern Ukraine, the EU has issued several restrictive measures. They concern, respectively, measures at the diplomatic level, sanctions against individuals and entities (such as rebel groups in Donbas), specific restrictions for Crimea (such as prohibitions for EU investments in that area), measures targeting sectoral cooperation (such as limited access for Russian state-owned financial institutions to the European capital markets) and suspension of new financial cooperation programs in which the European Investment Bank, for example, is involved. In return Russia proclaimed an import ban for agricultural and food products originating from the EU (plus USA, Canada, Australia and Norway).

Certainly, the EU should not (in fact never) recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It was an act clearly violating fundamental international law principles such as independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. That being said, most sanctions of the EU concern primarily Russia’s involvement in Eastern Ukraine. They can only be lifted once the so-called Minsk Agreements will be implemented correctly by all parties concerned, Russia included.

In the meantime NATO and also the EU are engaged in reinforcing their defense capabilities. NATO has also developed a new Black Sea Strategy, and the EU ministers of foreign affairs agreed, for example, during their meeting of 14 November 2016 to deepen their defense cooperation in several respects.

Perhaps, however, the moment has come to reflect on the wisdom and feasibility of such a one-sided approach. Instead of putting the focus solely on the building-up of a new military complex we could think at starting, in parallel, a new round of negotiations with Russia in order to find common grounds for new forms of cooperation. In the end Russia is an important neighbor of the EU in several respects: geographically, economically, militarily and politically. The European Union is Russia’s main trading and investment partner, and Russia is the EU’s third. Moreover, the potential for cooperation with that country is huge: the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) of 1997 for example referred to the four common spaces, i.e. i) economy and environment; ii) freedom, security and justice; iii) external security; and iv) research, education and culture.

Moreover, the restrictive measures taken by the EU and Russia mentioned earlier have not blocked all channels of communication and trade. On the contrary, the measures the European Union has issued are specifically targeted and leave, by the way in our own interest as well, sectoral cooperation – energy being an important example – open.

In this context Donald Trump’s election in the US and the designation of ExxonMobil’s boss Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State – the latter has been presented as a personal friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – should be taken into account. These are circumstances which we cannot simply ignore.

Overall one thing, however, should be clear. Before making new gestures towards Russia and, for example, abolishing the EU sanctions related to the unrest in Eastern Ukraine, that country has to demonstrate its respect for the Minsk Agreements. Russia should also lift its own agricultural sanctions. As to Crimea, apparently more time is needed to find a way out of that crisis.

Of course one should reflect on the question of what we want to achieve in resetting our relationship with Russia. For a long time the creation of an EU-Russia free trade area, as a means of implementation of the 1997 PCA, has been a topic on the agenda. Since Russia has become a WTO member in 2012, that objective indeed seemed to be a feasible one. However, since the start of the functioning of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 (apart from the Russian Federation, its member states are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) it looks as if the EU has to deal with the EEU as a contracting partner. A not that attractive perspective because, on the one hand, the EEU is a customs union of its own and, on the other, because one of the EEU member states – Belarus – is not a WTO member.

Nonetheless, something has to be done. In an era full of external threats and challenges we cannot go on by only creating new obstacles in our relationship with Russia. A more constructive vision, albeit a conditional one, seems to be indicated. Such a new approach can only contribute to (more) stability on our continent, in the interest of both European and Russian citizens. In that respect the turmoil of the last years in the Eastern Partnership region – not only in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Moldova for example – have illustrated that the European Neighborhood Policy could probably have been better developed with the Russian Federation participating right from the start as an equal partner.


Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General