EU, Russia look to mend fences

Jonathan Steele

There were tears and sweat aplenty in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on Wednesday for the Champions League cup final, but barely any blood. English soccer fans kept calm. Russia’s police avoided running amok. The result was that stereotypes of Russia as a harsh forbidding place lost another chunk of credibility and its quest to be treated as a “normal” country on the post-cold war stage advanced a further step.

The European Union’s 10-year Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Russia expired last year, and efforts to renew it have run into serious problems. On May 26, the EU’s foreign ministers will make a new effort to agree a mandate. It will be nowhere near as exciting a struggle as the Luzhniki match, or indeed the one a week earlier, when Russians cheered Zenit St Petersburg in winning the UEFA Cup. But it does matter, since the EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner, and Russia is Europe’s major energy supplier.

The relevant issues are well aired in a recent report by the UK House of Lords’ EU committee. They took evidence from an array of former British ambassadors to Moscow as well as EU officials and independent experts. The voice of political realism rings through the report, a world away from the emotional and ideological tone of the “new” Europeans. EU-Russia relations are said to be going through a “bad-tempered phase”. But both sides are advised

to see things in a long-term perspective. Far from being ina “new cold war”, neither the EU nor Russia has yet adjusted to the end of the old one and the past two decades’ turmoil of newly released post-Soviet nationalisms.

The House of Lords’ report strongly makes the point that the 1990s were a time of mass impoverishment for Russians, and the imposition of western-style democracy is associated with that in many Russians’ minds. Obliquely but unmistakably, it also hints at the double standards in European and US policy. Its conclusion is that the EU should speak out on human rights in Russia “from time to time”, but consider every critical statement carefully before issuing it.

On the Russian side, having a new president will also not change much. The new set-up of a powerful prime minister Putin and a novice President Medvedev will take several months to bed down. Kremlinology is back in vogue as analysts pick over the names, titles and status of Putin’s cabinet ministers and Medvedev’s advisers; but the trend of Russian foreign policy will not alter. Those who see Medvedev as “liberal” will be disappointed.

Could the EU and Russia survive the failure to sign a new partnership agreement? Absolutely. The old one has been extended for a year, and could be renewed again. Or it could lapse, unmourned. The two sides have already agreed on a series of “roadmaps” which outline cooperation in various “common spaces” — on economics, security and justice, and research and education.

It is easy to sneer at this as Eurocratic gobbledygook and word games, as though giving a lump of issues a label amounts to actual progress. But interaction between Russia and the EU is bound to develop in all these areas, however they are labelled. The main need is to lower expectations and prevent the inevitable short-term crises and disputes from bringing down the house.