The EU’s move, while unexpected, is forcing Russia to re-think its broader European strategy. No matter how divided the EU appears to be at times, a significant change to its stance toward Russia is not coming anytime soon.


European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, speaks with European Council President Donald Tusk during a round table meeting an EU summit in Brussels on Dec. 18. Photo: AP

Last week, Brussels hosted another European Summit. At the end of the high profile meeting, leaders of 28 EU members decided to prolong sanctions on Russia for its policy in Eastern Ukraine. What does it mean for Russia?

A difficult year for the European Union

The December summit that brought together the Presidents and Prime Ministers of European countries summed up the political results of 2015, a year that turned out to be rather complex and strained for the EU.

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This year, Europe faced a number of challenges: the Greek debt problem, activation of the Economic and Monetary Union, massive illegal immigration from the Mediterranean region, and terrorist threats facilitated by the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), to name just a few issues that the EU had to handle throughout the year.

It is hardly surprising that Europeans are increasingly unhappy with the state of affairs in their respective countries and in the EU in general. Symbolically, the year started and will end with political breakthroughs of anti-systemic forces, such as Syriza in Greece and the National Front in France, which terrify the European political establishment.

At the same time, the EU showed yet again that as a unique interstate union, it has the amazing ability to adapt to hardships and survive various crises. In 2015, many EU members proved beyond doubt that they can overcome the economic recession, so it does not come as a surprise that the Brussels Summit was dedicated to the discussion of key issues for the future of the Union and all Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that this top level meeting was "tumultuous and extremely difficult."

Extensive agenda

Many issues discussed at the Summit, such as the fight against terrorism, were of interest to Russia and its citizens. European leaders agreed to enhance the exchange of intelligence information on financial sources of international terrorism and devise preventive measures to "curb radicalization."

Russians also care about migration. On the one hand, before the Summit Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, emphasized that "solidarity is the fundamental idea of European cooperation" when speaking on immigration issues.

On the other hand, Luxembourg, the country that is stepping down as the President of the EU council on Dec. 31, prepared a report that exhibited signs of alarm.

"In order to save the Schengen area, it is necessary to regain control of our external borders," it read.

Soon, the European Agency for the Protection of the Coastline and Border will be formed on the basis of Frontex, the European Union agency that promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU’s fundamental rights. At the same time, politicians approved the  introduction of immigration control by national states within the Schengen area.

European border patrol will de jure have the opportunity to act on behalf of the EU on the territory of "problematic" EU members, regardless of national authorities' objections.

The Russian financial lobby was also interested in the outcome of the discussion on the EU’s "energy security." Virtually several days before the Brussels Summit, Poland and Slovakia urged to block the construction of Nord Stream-2.

In any case, the majority of the EU members seek energy independence, especially since currently the European Union imports 90 percent of consumed oil and two-thirds of required natural gas.

The most sensitive item on the Summit agenda was the "British issue" that had to do with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's intent to conduct a referendum on Britain's involvement in the EU.

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"We want to find solutions that meet the expectations of the British Prime Minister all the while solidifying the foundations of the EU," pointed out Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council.

But from the look of it, no compromise was reached on British initiatives. The discussion was postponed until the next high profile meeting scheduled for February, for many in the EU are reluctant to let London cancel social aid to immigrants from other member states if immigrants have lived or worked in Great Britain for less than four years.       

Ambassadors prolong sanctions without discussing it

The truly Russian issue was pushed to the very end of the Summit, the evening of Dec. 18, but the results came as no surprise. Several days before the Summit, online rumors suggested the prolongation of EU sanctions on Russia for its policy in Eastern Ukraine.

Thus, the sanctions that were introduced in 2014 (predominantly in the energy, banking and military sectors) were extended for another six months without much discussion.

This procedure exposes the limitations of Russia's current strategy regarding the EU. As Professor Tatyana Parkhalina points out, the strategy is based on the delusion that, "The West can be 'good' and 'bad', and we should try to prop one up against the other."

It is from this perspective that we should assess Moscow's attempts to rebuild its relations with some EU members. Russia's current methods are reminiscent of the 1990s when the Kremlin had high hopes for French President Jacques Chirac or Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Another recent, but extremely prominent trend in Russian foreign policy is the support of anti-systemic forces within the EU, represented by radical leftist groups (Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain) or far right factions (the National Front in France and the North League in Italy). Such actions, to put it mildly, make European political elites resentful towards Russia.

However, the problem is that, in spite of inner disagreements and crises, the EU is still a strong union with common rules of the game and a joint strategy. By the way, on Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin illustrated this point during his news conference. He stated that Bulgaria abandoned the South Stream project because leading EU institutions, the European Parliament and European Commission, put pressure on Sofia to backpedal on the ambitious energy project.

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Thus, Russian diplomatic strategy on the EU has not been efficient. On the other hand, some EU members support the alleviation or total removal of sanctions (for example, Prime Ministers of Greece and Turkey and the President of Cyprus).

Before the Brussels Summit, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi expressed his personal opinion on the issue by saying that the removal of sanctions "is not a matter of a few hours, but, more likely, a matter of months." At the same time, Renzi remarked that Italy would support its EU allies' position on the prolongation of sanctions. And that is precisely the source of the problem for Russia: the EU acts as one in spite of the difference of opinions.

Given the significance of Russia's relations with the EU, which accounts for about 50 percent of Russia's trade turnover, Moscow needs to try and build good rapport with the European Union as a whole as well as its primary institutions.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.