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Commentary | 24 September 2014

“Co-opetition” with Russia: can the EU do it?

Image of Vivien Pertusot

Vivien Pertusot |Head of Brussels Office for the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri)

EU Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

Outgoing European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council of the EU President Herman van Rompuy said after an EU-Russia Summit that the meeting was “a real tribute to the important nature of our partnership. It demonstrates the priority which we attach to this strategic relationship.” This was just two years ago. Today, no European leader would easily endorse this position. Incoming High Representative Federica Mogherini stated it clearly when she recently testified as Italian Foreign Minister before the European Parliament that “the strategic partnership is clearly over”. But if not a strategic partnership, then what?

This is today’s big question. The dramatic events in Ukraine and the Russian meddling there have been a slap in the face for many Europeans. The next High Representative will have a daunting task: assuage both the most critical Europeans on Russia and those inclined to disinfect the current poisonous state of affairs. She will need to lead a policy where Russia is no longer “a strategic partner” and where any partnership with Russia entails an agreed transactional dimension.

Two trends have characterized Europe’s attitude. First, the economic interdependence is well-known. Russia is Europe’s third biggest trade partner and the EU is Russia’s first trading partner in the world. This fact is an incentive both to encourage a rapid settlement of the deteriorating relations and to avoid any potentially inflammatory action, especially from the European side.

Second, the revival of Russia’s assertiveness has put the country back at the core of global affairs. As difficult as Moscow may be on some issues, Western countries have been trying to handle Russia carefully either to foster consensus on approaching global challenges or to avoid it from blocking their own initiatives. Debates at the UN Security Council on Iran or Syria are the best evidence of this thorny game of diplomacy.

In light of the events in Ukraine, it is evident that a serious discussion is needed among Europeans about the future of EU-Russia relations. This debate will however be complicated by the two trends above.

EU-Russia partnership is plagued with doubtful assumptions and misplaced hopes. In its relationship with the outside world, the EU usually relies on its transformative power: every country can be a friendly partner and the EU’s clout and attractiveness will help mould the relationship to its advantage. This point of view is laudable, but fails to appreciate that this can only work with partners willing to adapt. Even in good times, Russia has shown that its embrace of our liberal democratic model is not an imminent prospect.

The EU conceived the relationship to be comprehensive, tying together political, economic, strategic, scientific, and cultural dimensions. It has had unfortunate consequences, because recent political tensions have affected all other aspects of the relationship, as we see today. Moreover, Europe has felt that in case of tensions Russia would retaliate by targeting economic relations and international negotiations, so they should be avoided. It implicitly gave leverage to Moscow, because Russia has been less prompt to weigh in those factors in its approach vis-à-vis Europe.

Finally, the EU and its member states have not gauged enough the effects of the relationship and its consequences for Europe. It has left the EU playing an ancillary role vis-à-vis national policies on Russia. It may have stemmed from a reluctance to deal with the difficult steps required when the atmosphere between Europe and Russia deteriorated – as we see today – or from the various national bilateral policies of the leading member states. But as a consequence, it prevented the EU from having too strong a role in weighing the costs and benefits of the relationship.

Those three problems are rooted in deeply embedded views within the European institutions and within the member states’ about the EU’s approach to third countries. The Union has tried to integrate co-operation with Russia amongst the broader and loosely-conceptualised scheme of “strategic partnership”. Although in the past few years, more differentiation has emerged in the treatment of “strategic partners”, the EU originally envisaged a fairly similar template for all partners, despite obvious differences. The ambition was to put the EU at the centre of a web of interlinked and integrated partnerships. Relatedly, the EU’s worldview embraces “effective multilateralism”. It means that all bilateral relationships can and should be positive, and potential risks, limits or drawbacks are hardly factored in. It reflects the understanding that the EU does not do power politics.

Against this backdrop, the challenge is even more daunting. Federica Mogherini will need to instil the idea that a sustainable co-operation with Russia may require Europeans to agree on a more transactional relationship, as Moscow does with Europe. It means that the EU and European countries adopt “co-opetition” (an attitude which requires an implemention of both co-operation and competition simultaneously) as their modus operandi with Russia. In other words, it can be an important partner one day at the bilateral level or in an international negotiation and less so the next day should its actions run against Europe’s interests. It requires a new framework for the Europeans, one in which economic interests are separated from political ones, and in which the bilateral dimension is not correlated to international negotiations, such as Iran or obviously Ukraine. This is not a new approach in politics, but most European countries have forgotten how and are reluctant to do it, and it is not in the EU’s DNA to implement this kind of posture. However, this is the rulebook that Russia is playing with. More generally, this could be the starting point of a broader discussion about how the EU views its global environment and how it is willing to use its tools to its best advantage knowing all third countries may not see its actions as neutral or positive.

Having a substantial debate on sustainable EU-Russia relations promises tense meetings. But everyone knows that the road to a convergence of viewpoints is full of stumbling blocks; and no one expects a quick fix, which is usually synonymous to a shaky compromise. Good thing then that Federica Mogherini has five years to make the EU’s Russia policy work.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.