Until Moscow and Brussels change their zero-sum approach, any talk about reviving the concept of a Greater Europe is just wishful thinking.

A woman with an umbrella walks towards the European Commission in Brussels. Photo: Reuters

Regardless of the fact that the state of Russia-EU relations still leaves much to be desired, the idea of a “Greater Europe” stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok continues to be music to the ears of the Russian authorities and many pundits.

The concept of a Greater Europe, which has been talked about since the end of the Cold War, was discussed during the second day of the Gaidar Economic Forum at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow on Jan. 13.

Many experts and officials continue to pin their hopes on closer economic, technological, innovation and trade ties between Russia and Europe. And there is a geopolitical angle as well. The concept of a Greater Europe shifts a great deal of responsibility for providing security in the Eurasian context to Russia and makes it one of the central players in the region, a sort of bridge between Europe and Asia.

This idea was also extensively promoted at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last September. However, those who took the floor in the Far East were more pessimistic than those in Moscow, given the ongoing tensions between Russia and the EU and their failure to resolve the standoff in Ukraine. Europe is not ready so far for such a scenario, the participants of the Eastern Economic Forum admitted.

However, with the victory of Republican Donald Trump, his protectionist pledges to reverse U.S.-led international trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as well as the increasing surge of populism in the West, Russian experts seem to have changed their minds about the possibility of bringing the concept of a Greater Europe back to the agenda.

Now they are more optimistic, if still cautious, as indicated by the speech of the moderator of the “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok: Dream or Reality?” discussion. Vladimir Salamatov, the director general at the Research Center for International Trade and Integration, believes that it is possible to transform the current conflict between Moscow and Brussels into cooperation, given the fact that the sanctions war affects both sides.

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Likewise, Franz Fischler, the president of European Forum Alpbach, which tries to foster EU-Russia ties both multilaterally and bilaterally, argues that it is necessary to look at the challenge from a broader perspective so as not to miss the opportunities for collaboration. However, it is possible only with what he calls “refreshing” and “new” thinking. According to him, tensions can be alleviated only through reciprocal mutual concessions at the economic and political level.

Alexander Shokhin, the president of Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, echoes this view. He believes that Moscow and Brussels can overcome the obstacles of what he calls “the European political bureaucracy” only through diversifying cooperation and expanding into fields like technology. What’s needed is a more “tangible” agenda - like coming up with technical standards for infrastructure and transportation projects. This could help to allay the “excessive politicization” of the relations.

After all, politics and specifically, the technological sanctions, hamper not only Russia and the EU countries, but also the world. Especially, the sanctions affect joint efforts to protect the environment and tackle climate change in the Arctic, according to Shokhin. In part, this is because it makes it impossible for Russia to use any Western technologies that might help to alleviate the effect of global warming in the Arctic. Moreover, Shokhin claims that the current political tensions could make the implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed at the end of 2015 difficult.

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However, these arguments don’t seem to be persuasive enough, given the fact that the Kremlin has been persistently relegating environmental protection and global warming to the secondary agenda for a long period of time, as indicated by one of the expert sessions at the Gaidar Forum that dealt with energy and climate change. And the fact that 2017 is going to be the Year of Environment in Russia is not a game-changer, in realty. Russia has fallen behind Europe, the U.S., China and other countries in the field of the environmental protection and the fight against climate change, according to many pundits.

Igor Bashmakov, the executive director of the Russian Center for Energy Efficiency, made it clear that the Russian authorities who prioritize hydrocarbons (oil and gas) a great deal don’t really care about “green energy” and other environmental efforts because of their narrow horizon planning and their underestimation of global warming. It is a sharp contrast to how EU countries perceive the problem and how much effort they are spending to make their economy greener and more friendly toward the environment.

However, it is possible that Russia-EU environmental cooperation could foster a political dialogue and perhaps be a baby step to reinvigorate the concept of a Greater Europe in the long-term perceptive. In this situation, there is no reason to overestimate the role of politics in the relations between Moscow and Brussels, because it sounds like an attempt to justify one’s reluctance to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of a brighter future.

After all, Russia and Europe “always overestimate the role of politics.” This inadvertently leads to their intransigent adherence to zero-sum game rules, as indicated by the Gaidar Forum speech of Esko Aho, senior fellow at Harvard University, consultative partner at Nokia Corporation and former prime minister of Finland (1991-1995).

He argues that Moscow and Brussels should avoid the zero-sum approach, which inevitably leads to failure. In this regard, he described Russia and Europe as perennial “losers" in terms of innovations and technologies in comparison with the U.S., which brings together the world's most innovative companies. What “the losers” need is to work together and play a win-win game to be in the right context to fit their concept or agenda to current demands. However, there is a pitfall - “nostalgic nationalism,” which has become popular in Russia, Europe and even the U.S., and it is a “dangerous” sign, warns Aho.

As long as nostalgic nationalism, obsession with national pride and attempts to outperform each other haunt Russia and the EU, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to restore a real and effective dialogue between them and implement the dream of a Greater Europe. So far, it seems to be just a dream and wishful thinking.

“The dialogue between the EU and Russia should be shifted from the cold zone to the warm one,” said Salamatov. His words will remain relevant today and in the foreseeable future, as long as the confrontation between the two sides persists.