By Nina Bachkatov
The last-minute proposal of German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron on the eve of the 24-25 June EU summit backfired, exposing the growing inability of Europeans to find a common foreign policy, notably with Russia. Their intent was noble; their method wrong. Their clumsy, and arrogant, attempt to extract a new framework for EU relations with Moscow was breaking all EU protocol rules, showing the limits of the much tutted “Franco-German couple” and the emotional dimension that still drives new members towards Russia.
Their motive was reasonable enough: the plan proposed the adoption of a new framework for EU-Russia relations, a much-needed political signal and a way to demonstrate EU’s capacity to speak with one voice. But the method was wrong, breaking all EU diplomatic rules and leading to suspicion of manipulation by two members state defending their big brother’s self-declared role, and their trade national interests with Russia.
Both leaders, as those of Italy and Spain whom Merkel consulted by telephone, felt a need to address what Merkel stressed during a speech to the Bundestag on the eve of the summit, when she said that the European Union “must also seek direct contact with Russia and the Russian president…It is not enough for U.S. President Joe Biden to talk to the Russian president — I very much welcome that — but the European Union must also create formats for talks here.” Macron spoke of the need to “start a dialogue to defend our interests as Europeans”.
All unraveled during the meeting. Soon after midnight, the Council adopted a hardline stance that Moscow will qualify as taken under “the influence of an aggressive Russophobic minority that increasingly sets the EU’s policy”. The Council instructed the Commission and the External Action Service to devise new sanctions, without referring to specifics. The prospect for a much-needed new format for a dialogue with Russia is in the limbo. The apparition of president Putin in Brussels has been turned into an unpalatable prospect. Putin can stay in his comfort zone, entrenched in a purely reactive position towards the EU Commission instead of entering a dialogue. All that confirmed Russia that important matters, notably the security of the European continent, are decided in Washington not in Brussels, towards which Russian efforts have to be directed. That is why, after the Council meeting, Merkel was blunt enough to declare “I personally would have wished for a more courageous step, but this is also OK and we’ll keep working”.
The wait-and-see position of Russia towards the EU was evidenced by the meager official reactions to the summit. But a lot more care went into the phrasing of two almost concomitant texts published by president Putin and foreign minister Lavrov. Read together, they state as strongly than ever the position of Russia and its vision of the “new international order”. Both texts were published on the official websites of the Kremlin and the ministry of foreign affairs.
On the 28 June, Lavrov signed a long article in the publication “Russia in Global Affair” and the newspaper Kommersant under the title “The Law, the Rights and the Rules”. The foreign minister wanted to salute the results of the 16 June meeting between Biden and Putin that “resulted in an agreement to launch a substantive dialogue on strategic stability, reaffirming the crucial premise that nuclear war is unacceptable”; then he added the usual caveat: nothing will be obtained that goes “hand in hand with threats”. As an indirect message to the EU, he described the meeting between Biden and Putin as the conclusion of “what seems to be the series of high-level Western events” at the G7 and Nato summits, as well as Joseph Biden’s meeting with European leaders.
According to him, “these meetings were carefully prepared in a way that leaves no doubt that the West wanted to send a clear message: it stands united like never before and will do what it believes to be right in international affairs, while forcing others, primarily Russia and China, to follow its lead”. He underlined the differences between the Western new vision of multilateralism, which he describes as “the adhesion without conditions and under the treats of sanctions to a Western led alliance where the West would create alliances that can be joined by total adhesion to its rules and under threats of sanctions” and the Russian (and others’) multilateralism “rooted in the UN” where different positions are expressed without leading to definite breaks. He of course rejected “All the mantras we hear from the Western capitals on their readiness to put their relations with Moscow back on track, as long as it repents and changes its tack, are meaningless”.
Putin’s olive branch
On 24 June, Putin published in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit an article timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the ‘Great Patriotic war’ under the title “Being Open, Despite the Past”. After the usual reference to the tens of millions lost lives and economic devastation, he moved on a new field by saying that “Despite attempts to rewrite the pages of the past that are being made today, the truth is that Soviet soldiers came to Germany not to take revenge on the Germans, but with a noble and great mission of liberation”. He went further by adding “We hold sacred the memory of the heroes who fought against Nazism. We remember with gratitude our allies in the anti-Hitler coalition, participants in the Resistance movement, and German anti-fascists who brought our common victory closer”. In another calculated stance, he added “I would like to emphasize that the historical reconciliation of our people with the Germans living both in the east and the west of modern united Germany played a huge role in the formation of such Europe”.
But then, he mentioned the hopes that the end of the Cold War would be a common victory for Europe, in line with the dream of Charles de Gaulle of a single continent – not even geographically “from the Atlantic to the Urals”, but culturally and civilisationally “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. He compared with the situation today, with NATO’s extension and the degradation of the whole system of European security. He added that the only way “to ensure prosperity and security of our common continent is only through the joint efforts of all countries, including Russia. Because Russia is one of the largest countries in Europe”.
And concluded “We are open to honest and constructive interaction. This is confirmed by our idea of creating a common space of cooperation and security from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean which would comprise various integration formats, including the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. I reiterate that Russia is in favour of restoring a comprehensive partnership with Europe. We have many topics of mutual interest. These include security and strategic stability, healthcare and education, digitalisation, energy, culture, science and technology, resolution of climate and environmental issues”.