27 June 2016
Detente between the West and Moscow is required and delays will fuel dangerous hotbeds that may get out of control. The EU must take a stand that it hasn’t managed or fears to take.
If we’d been asked a few years ago about I the kind of future we had envisioned for the European Union, most of us would have probably advocated for the “ever closer union among the peoples and member states” outlined in the Solemn Declaration on European Union as well as an extension of that principle, possibly linking the EU to Turkey and also strengthening its relationship to Russia. But time and stark realities have conspired to undermine the likelihood of such developments. This is unfortunate for Turkey, which from a geographical point of view is only European to a very minor extent and is anything but European from a historical and religious perspective. But the recent refugee crisis along the Balkan route has initiated a quantum leap in EU-Turkey relations that has been going far beyond what might have been thought possible in less fraught times. Meanwhile, the bitter discord that has From time to time, this overlap has exacerbated tensions with instances of brinkman- ship such as the downing of a Russian plane been smouldering between Moscow and Brussels is a much more serious and complex issue. Luckily, for the time being at least, both Russia and the EU appear to be aware of the complementary and even essential roles they play for each other in certain sectors. A further complication in this web of relations is posed by NATO, which is not part of the European Union but which contains a European pillar whose members for the most part coincide with those of the Union. by the Turks and more recently Russian fighters buzzing American ships in the Baltic sea. As things stand, there is only one reasonable assessment when looking at the current state of affairs: relations between Europe and Russia are at their lowest ebb in the last 25 years. And there is nothing to be gained from trying to assign blame for the current state of affairs. Half of Europe is caught up in a paranoid fervour, fearing the return of Russian military offensives. Meanwhile Moscow, with equally fervent paranoia, continually balks at the idea of sharing its European border with NATO. In the absence of reason, a clash of the two risks generating real-world night- mares, as has already been the case in Ukraine. But it is also becoming increasingly obvious that the West, the European Union and Italy would stand to gain a great deal from improved relations with Moscow. From a political perspective, the Syrian issue has clearly demonstrated how Russian decisiveness and military power can be combined with the West’s capacity for man- aging coalitions and identifying diplomatic solutions to at least provide a ray of hope for a situation in which until recently the possibility of any kind of peace was not on the cards. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the complex Gordian knot hanging over Libya where Russia has mainly weighed in by keeping out. The added uncertainty of whether Moscow would support a United Nations resolution, an essential premise for any reasonable and viable solution to the ongoing crisis, further complicates the issue. Even in the other theatre of conflict, stretching from the Baltic states to Georgia, it would be advisable for Moscow and the Atlantic Alliance to soften their rhetoric and start looking for potential solutions. Otherwise, we run the risk of witnessing a sudden eruption of one of the many smouldering hotbeds of unrest, possibly fuelled by interested local parties. Such a situation could easily get out of hand, with devastating consequences. Furthermore, from an economic point of view, the endless and tiresome chain of embargoes and restrictions has been damaging for everyone involved. It is yet another demonstration of how embargoes end up backfiring against those who participate in them, often more so than those against whom they are imposed. Let’s be clear: those who participate in embargoes are harmed, not those who imposed them in the first place! In the case of the Russian embargo, Germany and Italy obviously had the most to lose from the trade blockade because they have the most extensive commercial ties with Moscow. Meanwhile, the reins of the decision making process still rest firmly in the hands of the Americans, and a renewal of sanctions against Russia is already being considered. The US plan, which is never openly discussed but always looms in the background, is that in the context of the drop in oil prices and the gradual whittling away of Moscow’s foreign currency reserves, the burden of an economic blockade will sooner or later cause the Russian economy to collapse. This could bring about the fall of Putin and the rise of governments that, although not more friendly to the West, would in all probability be easier to manage. Thus we persevere with a plan based on an error in judgement that has proven to be extremely dangerous in recent times: underestimating the pride of a great nation that does not intend to relinquish the hope that it can maintain its status as one of the few major world powers. One final comment should also be made about Russian gas, an issue that is undoubtedly economic but also takes on strategic importance because of the extent to which many European countries depend on Russian energy supplies. Even when political tensions have reached fever pitch, the exchange of energy for precious foreign currency has never slowed or suffered serious delays. This fact is a clear indication of how crucial both sides understand such exchanges to be. Thus it is a pity that, perhaps as a way of reiterating with the left hand the principle that the right hand is constantly denying or in order to establish an alibi with which the EU can ease US concerns, the Union ultimately decided to abandon the construction of the South Stream pipeline, which would have connected Russia to the southern reaches of the European continent. This decision resulted in severe damage to Italy, which still depends on the northern pipeline for its gas supplies and saw a billion dollars’ worth of signed deals with the Italian oil and gas contractor Saipem go up in smoke. Later, when Russia and Germany decided to double the flow of gas through the North Stream pipeline without any substantial re- action from Europe, the episode began to seem like a tragic joke. What should one do at this point? Continue along the well-worn path of heightening tensions with Russia and allowing our big brother the US, perhaps with Trump at the helm, to continue making decisions for us, bearing in mind that the US will always promote its own security and interests over Europe’s? Or would it not be a good idea to extend a hand to Moscow in order to see if harmonious cooperation could restore some semblance of order, not only to our own neck of the woods but also to the neighbouring fields that surrounds us? In my honest opinion, the time has come for us Europeans to decide to grow up!