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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU and Russia Need to Try a Fresh Approach

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When in recent years journalists and political observers characterized relations between Russia and the European Union as being in crisis, Moscow and Brussels angrily objected. As evidence they offered the results of biannual summits. Each summit did, in fact, produce some document signifying, or at least potentially signifying, a step forward.

But now the impasse between the two sides is obvious. The summit to be held Friday near Samara is not expected to produce any significant results. If the unsuccessful high-level meeting in Helsinki last autumn could be dismissed as nothing more than an annoying episode, today the mutual hostility cannot be brushed under the carpet.

The disagreement over the quality of Polish meat that seemed to be a mere technicality some months ago has now become a political issue. With each passing day it becomes increasingly difficult for either Moscow or Warsaw to take a step back. All the more so since Germany, which has made titanic efforts to bring both sides to a compromise, now appears to have given up. And if Berlin initially sympathized with Moscow, and all of Europe was greatly irritated with Warsaw's obstinacy, today the blame is laid on Russia.

Negotiations are not expected to be renewed on a new strategic partnership pact to replace the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which expires at the end of this year. And while the threat that either Lithuania or Estonia could veto the process does not improve matters, it is more or less irrelevant given the current impasse.

There are numerous causes behind the current crisis. The overall situation changed significantly following the EU's expansion in 2004. Whatever the leaders of the former Soviet bloc states may have stated publicly, they saw their accession to the EU as a chance to settle historical scores with Moscow.

Poland is a separate case. Warsaw is pursuing a goal that has no direct relation to Moscow: to strengthen its position within a united Europe and to join the inner circle of the EU's most influential countries. A few years ago Warsaw promoted the idea of the EU's "eastern dimension" with the intention of becoming the point man for EU policy regarding Russia and the former Soviet Union. In this way the Polish political elite hoped to increase its importance on the European stage. But this idea received no support among the leaders of the major Western European powers, who reasoned that Warsaw could not play the role of honest broker for historical reasons. Poland has achieved its goal, however, albeit by different means. Today it is Warsaw that holds the key to relations with Moscow.

Political fragmentation within the EU has also contributed to deteriorating relations with Russia. The integration crisis does not make it any easier to develop ties with important foreign partners. The battle of national governments with the European Commission for power further complicates the search for a long-term strategy. The tug-of-war between Brussels and the capitals of member states has also led to disputes between various blocs within the EU.

Russia tried to use the lack of unity within the EU to single out larger countries for exclusive partnerships. This tactic seemed to be successful for a time, but as we now see, it did more harm than good. Moscow's attempts to circumvent less-desirable countries have endangered relations with its loyal partners. Even such major powers as Germany and France could not ignore reproaches from the other EU countries for having violated European solidarity and for having grown too cozy with the Kremlin. And Moscow's unwillingness or inability to maintain its composure in its relations with Eastern European governments has forced Western European nations to side with them against Russia, even when they initially had little inclination to do so, as in the cases of Poland and Estonia.

The change of leadership in leading European countries has nullified Moscow's attempts to bolster its influence through personal relationships. President Vladimir Putin will never have the sort of bond with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy that he enjoyed with their predecessors. Britain's next prime minister, Gordon Brown, has little interest in Russia. Putin fares better with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, but this is nothing compared with his friendship with Silvio Berlusconi.

All of these specific reasons for the cooling of EU-Russian relations are manifestations of a profound conceptual crisis. The basic problem is that Russia and the EU lack strategic goals for their relationship. Neither Moscow nor Brussels has defined what it wants from the other. During the period leading up to the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1994, and its ratification in 1997, both sides took the position that Russia would gradually continue its "Europeanization" according to the Brussels recipe, but without the eventual prospect of EU membership. The plan was not particularly realistic, but at least it was conceptually sound.

Everything has changed since then. The EU has doubled in size and run into management problems. Russia has ceased to depend on external financing and is no longer open to models of governance offered from beyond its borders.

Even the understanding of what constitutes integration has changed. In the 1990s it connoted Russia's aspiration toward European political, economic and social norms. Now Moscow considers integration an exchange of interests among equals. The scope of national interests has also narrowed to economic, and specifically energy, interests.

What's worse, the process of transformation continues. Nobody can say what the EU or Russia will be like in 10 or 15 years. Any talk of a long-term agreement seems ridiculous considering the rate and scale of the current changes.

In the absence of common goals and values, negotiations -- even if they were to get underway -- would get bogged down in horsetrading on a multitude of economic issues. The overall unfavorable tone in EU-Russia relations will turn minor stumbling blocks into major political hurdles. The irrational but obvious election-year jitters in Moscow will only make matters worse.

Russia and the EU need a new model. Their interdependence and cultural-societal affinity are incontestable, as is their mutual inability to build a satisfactory relationship using current methods. The EU should understand that it can no longer talk down to Russia and teach it how to behave. Russia needs to realize that legal nihilism, changing the rules after the game has begun and reliance on economic coercion cannot lead to the desired result.

Brussels and Moscow like to say they have come a long way over the last 15 years. That's true. But experience is only useful is properly understood and when it leads to the proper conclusions. That requires intellectual freedom and an ability to think outside the box that are not yet evident in either Russia or the EU. So for now, we'll just carry on under the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which can be extended indefinitely.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.