EU’s problems: Russia and recession politics

March.26 : These are difficult days for the European Union. They are difficult for the rest of the world as well, with one striking difference. The most audacious and successful adventure in post-World War II history is foundering because the economic meltdown has accentuated the contradictions among member states and their views on the future.

The Lisbon treaty that would have given the EU a symbolic sense of unity and leadership with a high-profile President and one foreign minister was shot down by Ireland in a referendum after French and Dutch voters had earlier rejected the treaty’s original version. The result has been that the EU is still subjected to the rotating presidency, and the luck of the draw has the Czech Republic in the presidential seat, a new former Communist member that cannot be expected to lead the heavyweights and the rest to surmount the crisis.

The great success of the European Union lay in its role as a trade and economic grouping and the initiation of a new European currency, the euro, was again an audacious step in integration. The next steps in political integration have proved difficult because the former Communist East and Central European members look to Washington, not Brussels, for protection and have seemed determined, more often than not, to humiliate Russia for their past forced subservience to it through the instrument of the European Union.

The onset of the worldwide financial crisis saw the new members complaining about the tendency of the larger members to look after themselves, rather than attend to the vulnerabilities of their poorer cousins. France in particular came under the scanner, as did the perceived parsimonious ways of Germany. At their recent summit, the EU leaders, however, did make a gesture by vastly expanding the fund to help indigent members. But the hurt among the new members has not been assuaged.

Even before the ugly economic crisis, the European Union had scaled down its ambitions. The days of France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder are memories now. Instead of seeing the Union as a counterweight to American power and a major political player in the world, the EU’s strategic think tank says it does not aspire to be a superpower, and nothing illustrates the new mood better that France’s decision to reverse Charles de Gaulle’s decision to walk out of the military wing of Nato to assert its independence of the United States.

True, it is a different world from the days of de Gaulle, but the strategic choice President Nicolas Sarkozy has made is significant. It is to achieve influence for France and Europe in the world with Washington’s blessing. In any case, the independent European military arm the EU had touted for long is nowhere meeting its modest goals. The EU had inserted the caveat of undertaking only peacekeeping and peace-enforcing tasks which the American-led Nato was not interested in undertaking. With the dimension of the present economic crisis, it will take far longer to expect member countries to make more money available for modernising their forces and building up long-distance transportation capacity.

Obviously, political and military progress in the EU must await the end of the economic crisis. But the Union, for all its path-breaking achievements, is a dispirited organisation today. There has always been a central contradiction among members on the kind of animal the EU should be: the contest between federalists and those for a looser gathering of nation states. The latter has largely won the argument insofar as the structure of the organisation is concerned. The concept that fired the imagination of men who first built the European Coal and Steel Community has become a distant dream.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the rapid expansion of the organisation determined by Western strategic considerations, rather than economic logic, would introduce new tensions in an essentially West European grouping. America’s wise man George Kennan had warned the world of re-dividing the European continent after the end of the Cold War. His views were disregarded and the promises made by Washington and Bonn that the West would not expand Nato eastward towards Russian borders were wilfully broken.

Russian leaders were later to rue the gullibility of last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in trusting Western promises as Nato vengefully expanded East, even swallowing the Baltic states, but they could do little more than fume. To an extent, the European Union compromised its strategic autonomy by following Washington’s agenda against Moscow. And the new members’ crusade against Russian interests, once they were inside, only added to the feeling that the EU was in danger of becoming an instrument of a new Cold War.

True, the European continental heavyweights — Britain essentially remains subservient to American foreign policy — still aspire to a role in the world. But that role can only be muted, mindful of US moods and policies. And the Union remains hobbled by its own glaring contradictions. If some members have no stomach for an independent foreign policy and would rather remain under the protection of Uncle Sam, what waves can the Union make?

The European Union now faces a new political and strategic problem: to build the basis of a new relationship with Russia. Although the economic crisis and falling oil prices have clipped Russian wings somewhat, Vladimir Putin’s Russia demonstrated that he had left Boris Yeltsin’s Russia far behind and would fight for Moscow’s strategic interests. Russia has already declared that it has a privileged position in its "near abroad", the strategic space occupied by former members of the Soviet Union. Moscow — and much of the rest of the world — does not buy the argument that the US and the West should have the freedom to occupy this space while it be denied to Russia.

How the European Union tackles Russia’s assertion of its strategic interests will determine the political fortunes of the grouping to a considerable extent.

`S. Nihal Singh

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