Europe in search of itself

19. June, 2007

Foto: David Kral

The difference between Russia and the EU is that Russia is trying to reinvent itself whereas the EU has never invented itself. Since its inception, the EU has never had an identity.

An interview with David Kral, Director of the Europeum Institute for European Policy, by Rita Rudusa

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the ‘new EU-Russia’ relationship. What are the elements that make it new?

The legal argument is that the current cooperation agreement expires this year and the new one should be signed, which should foster cooperation in many areas. It is also new in the way that, compared to the time when the previous agreement was being negotiated, the situation in Russia has changed a lot. It is not the same benign country it was at the end of the [Boris] Yeltzin era when the previous agreement was concluded. These days, it is a much more self-assured power, the central authority has managed to consolidate the influence it had somehow lost before. Russia has emerged from the wildest era of the nineteen nineties and, of course, it is starting to play an important role in the energy game, which is, I think, the main point that Europe is concerned about at the moment.

Do both sides, EU and Russia, have a clear idea as to how to build this new relationship? It seems that, in Europe, there are many different ideas on the subject of what the relationship with Russia should look like, and nobody really knows how to approach it.

The basic problem of Europe is that it cannot speak to Russia with one voice. It has been clearly the case, particularly after the enlargement. Sometimes it is portrayed in a simplistic manner saying that the so-called new Europe has brought some anti-Russian element into the EU. This is a card that Russia likes to play very much, as well. But I do not think it is as simple as that. For obvious historical reasons, in the countries like Baltic states and Poland, there are particular concerns regarding Russia. It is also sometimes evident that Russia does not consider these countries as partners and prefers dealing with the big players in the EU, for example, Germany, France and so on. This approach obviously generates some frustration. In my opinion this is probably the biggest challenge at the moment, to foster a common European stance, at least on some issues, and the ability to speak to Russia with one voice. To some extent, the recent row over Estonia[1], showed that there is still some solidarity among the Europeans.

Do you see the response to the pressure from Russia as an encouraging sign?

Yes, but with reservations. I think it was more like a symbolic gesture. There are suggestions that Russia did it just to test how far they can actually go and what can they afford to do without risking to throw the entire EU against themselves. I would be more careful when it gets to more serious issues. I do not mean to say that this was not serious enough, but perhaps it was not as big an issue as some of the others.

What about Russia? Does it have a clear idea of what it wants these relationships to be?

I think that Russia is still in search of itself. It still has many internal problems — the conflicts that are still going on, also very discouraging demographic trends, etc. So, it is still in search of its place in Europe and perhaps in the world also. I am not sure that even the current administration knows where Russia is currently standing. Do they want to play hard in Europe and try to exploit their energy leverage? Or are they looking for some kind of partnership? In long-term, it would be mutually beneficial. From the point of view of globalization, it is only natural that these two partners work together, but I am not sure Russia really sees it as an equal partnership. But it is just my intuitive guess.

What about internal sentiments in your country, the Czech Republic? It is not among the most outspoken members of the EU when it comes to relationship with Russia.

It seems that nowadays Russia is the farthest from us it has ever been. Except for 1968, we have never had an experience of direct Russian domination or oppression. It was always Germany that was the big issue for the Czechs. It stayed that way up until the Velvet Revolution. Now Russia is entering the agenda as a part of the general EU-Russia discourse. There is nothing particularly Czech to add to it. The only thing is, of course, the anti-missile base, which the US wants to build in the Czech Republic. Russia is outright opposed to that. This may worsen the bilateral relations a bit. As for the sentiments in society, I would say that this is not an issue. I would not say that the issue resonates strongly in the Czech Republic.

Ukraine is a closer big Slavic neighbor than Russia, and there are many Ukrainians working in the Czech Republic. How does the Czech Republic see Ukraine vis-à-vis Europe?

Generally, I would say that the Czech eastern policy in recent years has been rather weak. Certainly, compared to countries like Poland. The issue of Ukraine has been ‘kidnapped’ by Poland, and they are very active. The situation might change slightly during the Czech presidency of the EU in 2009. It is clear that the eastern policy, and especially the countries covered by the EU’s Neighborhood Policy, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus will be one of the priorities of the presidency.

Will the EU be able to ignore Ukraine? It is a very big player in Europe, at least size-wise if not in terms of actual influence.

It seems that size is something that the EU has problems with (laughs). Interestingly enough, this is an issue where Russia comes into play again. I think there is still fear in the EU that if we start the process of integrating Ukraine too quickly it might antagonize Russia, because the Russian administration still perceives Ukraine as its sphere of influence. But in the future, yes, absolutely, Europe will not be able to neglect Ukraine. Although it will also depend on how things go in Ukraine itself, because one could argue that this country has not yet made its choice of which way it wants to go.

It is probably far too early to speculate but do you see, in the future, the borders of European Union matching the borders of the continent?

Yes, I would say so, but in a very distant future. However I do not think that we have defined the borders of the continent.

Is this an issue of values or an issue of geography?

Geography poses a problem here, because Europe is a part of Eurasia. In the East the boundaries are very blurry. The current borders were defined by a Swedish geographer of the 18th century, who designed them for Peter the Great to prove that Russia is in Europe. At the moment the only European denomination that we can all agree on is the one of values. Basically, those are the values we have in the founding treaties [of the EU]. Namely, democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, etc. But this definition is, of course, too broad. Because there are other countries that subscribe to these values, but we would not expect them to join or even apply for the EU membership. So, I think, in the future there will be some combination of the two criteria. Some sort of geographic consideration will have to remain. We have already seen this in practice — when Morocco applied for the EU membership they were told, sorry, you are not European. In case of Turkey we have said yes and I do not think we can take it back.

What about French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent comments[2]?

It is very unfortunate in a way, because it sends very bad signals to Turkey. On the other hand, you cannot be truly angry with Sarkozy, because he just said what many European politicians have thought for a long time. They just did not have the courage to stand up for that. Certainly, if you look at the European opinion polls, it is not a very good picture for Turkey.

Europe seems to be acting in a very hypocritical manner, is it not? On the one hand, we invite you to start the accession talks, but on the other we do not really want you.

Yes, the signals the EU is sending are very mixed. The candidate status was given to Turkey in 1999 and the talks started in 2000. Europe wants to keep that process going, but at the same time keeps inventing various obstacles in order to either slow it down or to put the process on hold. Last year I had a feeling that it is a deliberate strategy to intimidate the Turks so much that they would pull out of the negotiations. But technically, the process is going on… And it cannot keep going forever. It is a rather unfortunate situation. I think that nothing but a full membership will be acceptable for Turkey, but it seems the Europe is not ready to offer it.

What would be the benefits of Turkish membership?

There are many counter-arguments to Turkey’s membership. People say it is too poor, too big. But it is no poorer than Bulgaria and Romania when they were accepted. It is big, but, in terms of budget, everything is subject to negotiation. Some of the Czech politicians say that the main benefit is that Turkey will force Europe to reform itself. There is no way you can take Turkey in and keep the current agricultural policy or regional policy. Another argument is that Turkey has a very dynamic economy and young population, which can help the aging population in Europe. It is also very important strategically. So, there are many benefits, but there are many risks, too. The biggest problem is that Europe is not psychologically ready to accept Turkey.

To what extent is, to put it bluntly, islamophobia to blame for the European lack of enthusiasm towards Turkey?

Yes, this is one of the key elements. Even though it is not fair to Turkey – it being one of the most secular countries in Europe. The problems that some European countries face in integrating Muslim communities make this argument stronger. It is one of the most important, if not the most important aspect in the whole debate. And there is no strong political will in Europe to change this attitude. Turkey does not have a strong advocate in Europe, except for Britain maybe. But, in case of Britain, it is a strategic calculation, which is perhaps not enough to make a strong case at the European scene.

You mentioned that Russia is still in search of itself. Would you say the same about the EU?

Yes, of course. Since its inception, the EU has never had an identity. It is an ongoing process and you never know what is going to come up at the next stage, which is a fascinating thing. The difference between Russia and the EU is that Russia is trying to reinvent itself whereas the EU has never even invented itself. It is an ongoing search, which is becoming increasingly complicated because we have more countries on board now and because there is the debate around the Constitutional Treaty. The positions of different countries are very diverging. There are countries that say we cannot move forward so fast, the Netherlend, France, the Czech Republic and, to a certain extent Poland, and then you have Romano Prodi saying that the countries that have ratified the Treaty should go ahead and we have to have a two-speed Europe. But I would not over-dramatize it. This tension has always been there, between the one who want deeper integration and the ones who do not.

What will be the future of the Constitution? Will it be a watered-down, loose document?

I am afraid so. No matter how strong is the push to salvage the Constitution; in the current circumstances I do not think it is realistic. We are likely to end up with a watered-text. I do not think we will be able to proceed as quickly as Germany imagines it and have it ratified by 2009 elections, but otherwise, yes, it is the most likely scenario.

[1] In April 2007, the decision by the Estonian government to move the Bronze Soldier, a tribute to the Red Army soldiers who died during World War II, from the center of Tallinn to the military cemetery outside the city prompted violent protests in Tallinn and angry reaction from the neighboring Russia.

[2] At a press conference in Brussels on 24 May, 2007, Sarkozy said: I believe that Turkey does not have a place in the European Union. raksts

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