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EU's Russia foreign policy: From Venus to Mars?

The crisis in Ukraine has impacted EU's internal and external policies.

Last updated: 17 Aug 2014 11:46
Remi Piet

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.
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EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton. [Thierry Charlier/AFP]

Six months after Viktor Yanoukovych fled Kiev under popular pressure from the Maidan, the situation in Ukraine has turned into a muddy never-ending civil conflict in the Eastern provinces of the country, made even harder by the geopolitical standoff between Russia on one side and the United States and Europe on the other.

On the ground, the fighting between the Ukrainian army and the local separatists has led to more than 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, including the passengers of the Malaysian MH17 plane. At the geopolitical level, however, cooperation between the European Union and Russia is the most obvious victim of the conflict.

While relations between the two powers had considerably warmed since the end of the Cold War and leading to Russia's entry in the WTO in 2012, the stalemate over Ukraine is setting in stone a structural tension that the joint celebration of World War I and the calls for peace could scarcely hide. A decade has passed since Germany's chancellor Gerhard Schroeder led a campaign to rehabilitate Vladimir Putin, for which he was later rewarded with the top position at the Russian energy consortium Nord Stream. Similarly the days when the former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon would confide in Vladimir Putin are long gone.

But how tough can the EU really be with Moscow?

Many disagreements, one agreement

Ten years ago, Robert Kagan famously compared the relationship between the EU and the US to the one between Venus and Mars. Brussels would be the amicable face of the couple wielding its normative influence and soft power potential, in contrast with Washington's aggressive foreign policy. Recent developments, however, have shown that the EU might be giving up its soft politics for a more bellicose stance, at least on Russia.

US and EU to impose tough sanctions on Russia.

As Jean Claude Juncker, the new president-elect of the European Commission, struggles to form a cabinet of commissioners and balance the European member states' interests, one of the central points of scrutiny is the stance taken by potential candidates towards Russia. The Russo-sceptic voice within the EU, traditionally led by Poland and the Baltic States, is no longer ignored. These concerns now have been echoed by politicians in traditionally more pro-Russian EU members (Karl-Georg Wellmann in Germany and Frans Timmermans in the Netherlands).

The squabble over the composition of the next European Commission has shown yet again that European member states continue to disagree about almost everything when it comes to further integration or reforming European economies. The German conservatives are criticising the candidate for the EU's economic portfolio, Pierre Moscovici, for being "unqualified" because of his Keynesian beliefs. Juncker himself is opposed by the UK for his perceived federalist agenda.

Maybe the only point of agreement during the intergovernmental negotiations in Brussels is that the future commission should be tough and intransigent on Russia. If Putin's record in reestablishing the stature of Russia after the post-Cold War slump can be considered quite impressive, it does not match the level of his other accomplishment: rekindling consensus in Brussels over his mismanagement of the Ukrainian conflict.

Choosing a top diplomat

The new anti-Russian stance impacted discussions over the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, whose creation was one of the crucial advances of the Treaty of Lisbon. Establishing this portfolio was supposed to be a stepping stone towards the EU finally playing a relevant role in global diplomacy. Unfortunately, the appointment of a low-profile and inexperienced British politician, Catherine Ashton, in 2009 cooled enthusiasm about the EU's diplomatic future for some time.

But the change of tone in Brussels seems to be real this time. As Ashton leaves the post, everyone agrees that it is time for a new, more assertive figure. In fact, several early candidates for the position were rebuffed for their lack of sternness towards Moscow.

Federica Mogherini the Italian initial front-runner is almost out of the race for being complacent towards Russia throughout the conflict in Ukraine. Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, lost all chances when he mocked his country's relationship with the US, calling it "worthless".

Eventually, the position might very well be handed to Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria. Although Georgieva clearly possesses the needed competencies after four years as EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, she might owe her nomination to a behind-the-scenes deal. Bulgaria must have been promised compensation from European leaders who demanded it halt work on the Russia's South Stream pipeline, a costly sacrifice for the Bulgarian economy.

European homogeneity or the Maginot Line? 

Yet there is no guarantee that Brussels' harsh rhetoric towards Russia is going to transform into effective policies. If the EU is adamant in maintaining a firm position towards Putin, its posturing might be worthless unless individual states stop implementing separate policies, in the hope of protecting their selfish interest at the expense of a common European foreign policy strategy.

While they encourage Brussels to be bold, some European countries are far from taking decisive steps toward sanctioning Russia. France still intends to sell its Mistral warship to Russia; Germany has no intention of placing its energy security at risk, and the UK continues validating export licenses for weapon sales to Russia while pampering Russian billionaires.

Eventually, if the consensus in Brussels proves to be only a façade, it might be as easy to circumvent for Putin as the Maginot Line was for Hitler in 1940. Resistance in Brussels is irrelevant if London, Berlin and Paris are easy to "conquer" separetely with Kremlin's energy reserves and purchasing power. The last few weeks of sterile negotiations have only confirmed the lack of consistency and unity among European powers.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

Follow him on Twitter: @RemiPiet

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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