Will Russia rejoice if the EU falls apart? Unlikely

The European Union’s persistent instability during the last two years has been exacerbated by the big unknown by the name of Trump. Today, there are five official scenarios for the EU’s future. With the EU reform effort in serious doubt, does Moscow have an opportunity, or challenge?
Opinion
Jean-Claude Juncker
Photo: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the European Parliament. Source: Reuters

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, to be solemnly marked on March 25, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker floated an assortment of roadmaps to be chosen for a united Europe of 27 states, as he said, “to shape a vision for its future.”

The future of the EU is nothing but hazy. Addressing the European Parliament on March 1, the Luxembourgish Juncker, also known simply as Jean-Claude, presented a white paper with five options to choose from on what is best for the G27.

The document put together by the executive branch of power bears the title, “Reflections and Scenarios for the EU-27 by 2025,” and is viewed as a draft to kick-start a debate. Actually, the debate was launched as soon as media leaks outlined the ‘play safe’ cautious approach taken by Juncker and his team of strategists.

Five scenarios a la carte

At first glance, the five paths reflect a realpolitik assessment of the dire state of play in the union that is plagued by disunited views on its credibility with citizens and chances of changes.

All five options, as claimed by an inside source quoted by the Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, are “based on real political experiences in the EU.” Yet, at closer range, four out of five scenarios have apparent flaws.

The first scenario implying “business as usual” is nothing but wishful thinking. Just like the second pegged on “EU federalism to the maximum”, already dubbed, “the Verhofstadt option,” (the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, is a champion of  a ‘United States of Europe’).

What makes these suggested “paths” a one-way to a dead end is the dominant mood in the community.

The Pew Research Center polled citizens of 10 EU states (France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.) in May-June 2016 and found out that while 27 percent accept the status quo and 19 percent are ready to transfer more sovereignty to Brussels, 42 percent favour a return of powers from the EU to national legislatures and executive authorities.

Moreover, the pollsters discovered that only 27 percent of Greeks and 38 percent of French had a positive view of the EU.

The third option looks more convincing because it’s focused on “enhanced cooperation” among the “coalition of the willing,” thus leaving the rest on the margins, though not ostracizing them. The rallying platform could be the Eurozone, as suggested by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, but not all would be happy with it (e.g., Poland, which sticks to its zloty).

The fourth model seems to be unacceptable by the major EU players since it amounts to “nothing but the single market,” which could have lured Britain to stay. If enforced, it would be a regress with key areas like migration, human rights, security and defence ejected from the EU decision-making processes.

The fifth idea seems to be a vague construct incorporating elements from the previous four scenarios. To put it together into a practical blueprint would require hammering out compromises on every article, clause, syllable and comma. Feasible?

A two-speed Europe in the making

Judging by the merits of the five scenarios, despite lack of detailed data, the ‘third way’ might emerge as the winner in the contest.

Noteworthy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the main stakeholder in the mega project, threw her weight behind the concept of “a multi-speed EU,” where “not all members will participate in the same steps of integration.”

“Certain member states see this option as a way to get rid of member states that are slowing the EU down – one especially thinks of Hungary and Poland – while others, on the contrary, see it as a way to push them to accept continued integration,” a source quoted by Le Soir claimed.

In fact, it could mean going back to ground zero from where the union kicked-off. Yet, as revealed by Politico.eu, the core EU states comprised of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg could well move forward with this scenario. As Juncker phrased it, “those who want more do more.”

Disintegrating Europe? A nightmare for Moscow

It’s hard to conceal that Moscow remains grudgingly suspicious of the European Union, as manifested by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s warning at the recent Munich Security Conference. Anti-EU counter-sanctions will not be lifted as long as Europe does not enforce Kiev’s implementation of the Minsk accords, he said.

Nevertheless, Russia is committed to developing a relationship with its closest neighbours. Brussels might choose to pursue bellicose posturing against Russia, while knowing it’s detrimental to the inherent interests of the European nations, but Moscow, rightly or wrongly, still perceives the Old Continent as its natural partner.

Despite claims to the contrary, Russia has benefited and might benefit even more from dealing with a united Europe. Moscow can capitalize on the accumulation of ‘best practices’ within the community. By engaging directly with Brussels it can avoid excessive red tape of member states’ bureaucracy.  

Evidently, Russia has a stake in promoting a “common economic space” as a vehicle to facilitate trade and investment, based “on the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, and good governance.”

No less essential would be close cooperation on combating terrorism and other forms of international illegal activities. This is achievable only if Europe speaks with one voice and acts in tune.

On all these tracks it’s easier for Moscow to engage with Europe as a strong single entity and not as a loose assortment of national self-interests where one ego eats another ego.

One swallow doesn't make a spring

The Kremlin has been routinely reiterating its willingness to re-establish a meaningful dialogue with the EU on the condition that Moscow is met halfway. Recent rumours circulating in the Russian capital claim that this week a middle-level EU executive has been probing ground in Moscow on a ‘reset’ of bilateral relations.

It’s a welcome sign but insiders also report that the EU has rolled out a list of preliminary demands to Russia as a sine qua non for a rapprochement. The EU’s hardball tactics are understandable, and the EU as an entity and the EU politicians, separately or in sync, have accumulated a critical mass of anti-Russia actions and declarations. Consequently, the EU has backed itself into a corner from which it doesn’t know how to get out.

Now, the EU is at pains how to make the inevitable sensible decision – restore dialogue with Moscow – but to create the appearance of a triumph of its policies, rather than a humiliating retreat.

What would Moscow do? Most certainly the Kremlin would show restraint, especially after being cold-showered by the fidgety locomotion within the Trump administration on its Russian policy. After all, the universal wisdom that, “one swallow doesn't make a spring,” has a high quotable rating in the Russian mentality.

Read more: How serious is the row between Russia and Belarus?>>>

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