RD Interview: Former French Ambassador to Russia Claude Blanchemaison shares his perspective on the state of Europe-Russia relations, with an emphasis on the intertwined history and future of France and Russia.

On July 22-27 a group of French MPs (pictured) paid a visit to Russia. Among the places they visited was Crimea, which caused a major stir in Russian and French media circles. Photo: RIA Novosti

It is now a year since Russia imposed reciprocal sanctions on Europe, and a year and a half since tensions between Russia and Europe started over the crisis in Ukraine. During that time, the relationship between Russia and the EU has continued to evolve in response to new developments. So what can we expect over the next year? 

On the sidelines of the Greater Europe meetings in Paris, Russia Direct sat down with experienced French diplomat and former ambassador to Russia Claude Blanchemaison to discuss the current state of affairs between the EU and Russia. The ambassador shares his vision of European policy towards Moscow and offers his views on how future tensions can be reduced.

Russia Direct: It has already been a year and a half since the sanctions against Russia were imposed. Since then there have been some disagreements among European Union members. And as France is among the strongest actors of the EU, her position is important. So, what is France’s stance on sanctions as a tool of international relations?

Former French ambassador to Russia Claude BlanchemaisonClaude Blanchemaison: As you know, there are some disagreements between the governments of different member states of the EU and the government of Russia on the Ukrainian crisis. Of course inside the EU you have different feelings because you have older member states, recent member states, member states from the North, from the South and sometimes also different economic interests.

So, the EU has to find a common stand, which is difficult but which has happened, and this common stand is a rather moderate stand.

As you know, the member states of the North wanted more sanctions and other member states, including France, wanted a milder reaction. It is a compromise because we had to find a common stand, and this compromise is what it is.

 Related: Sanctions against Russia are dividing Europe more than you think. 

Of course, it can be criticized but it is a common stand of the member states of the EU. This is because it has to be decided not by a majority but by unanimity, which is very difficult between 28 countries.

In the remote past, it was one of the greatest difficulties. Once the states voted all together by unanimity on something like sanctions, there was no limit of time. Then, it was impossible to lift them because if you want to lift them, there is always somebody who does not agree. 

Now already for a certain period of time when such a decision is taken there are legal ways to limit its time.

You have to take a new decision to decide on a prolongation and that is what has been done, for instance, with the EU sanctions against Russia. But then inside the EU you need unanimity of 28 countries again to have a prolongation of sanctions, which is a new decision – so there is no automatic guarantee because then nobody can impose the prolongation, as if we have to get unanimity to lift the sanctions. 

RD: Lets look at this from a bit different angle. How do you see sanctions as a legal instrument of foreign policy that has not been passed through the UN Security Council? 

C.B.: Well, commercial policy is at the level of the EU. By treaty, the member states have delegated to the EU the competence and right to negotiate commercial rules and commercial agreements. That is why it has been decided on the European level and not on the national level. And it is not the first time it has been done. 

As far as the United Nations is concerned, there is a clear difficulty to get to a common decision in the Security Council as one of the permanent members can block any kind of decision.

Whether it is good or not, I have no opinion on that, but what I am trying to say is that the compromise which has been reached within the EU is a moderate compromise according to the state of public opinion in Germany, in France, in Italy and also in Denmark, in Sweden and the Baltic states.

It is a very moderate compromise for the time being and of course sanctions should be lifted when the situation will improve according to the Minsk II agreements

I am just stressing the fact that sanctions cannot be prolonged for the next year or two if there is no unanimity of all 28 member-states.

RD: How does French business suffer from these sanctions, if it suffers at all?

C.B.: In both cases, sanctions are rather limited in fact. All the things that are excluded from the sanctions are business as usual, and business is proceeding as normal.

Of course, the whole political thing of the tensions between Europe and Russia has created a crisis of confidence, which is another matter that is different from sanctions. After all, you have the forces of the market, and the confidence of people depends on the markets and with that you cannot do anything.

It is a matter of the precision of the people who operate on the market. When there is no confidence, they do not operate on the market.

RD: In this regard, do French businesses support the French government’s decision about sanctions? Companies are losing money and their share of the market. There was a recent example of a British Member of Parliament who said that, despite his disagreement with Russian policy, British business is losing real money, real contracts – so they are not in a very good position in terms of the market.

C.B.: After all, we are a democracy and, of course, I suppose some people in the business sector would prefer that there would be no sanctions. But we live in a democracy and in a democratic way the compromise has been negotiated between all the partners of the EU. We have to stick to that.

RD: What can France, as an influential actor of the EU, do to improve the level of understanding between the EU and Russia?

C.B.: This is very important and this is exactly what we do inside the Minsk process. The review process of the Minsk II agreement is ongoing and operated by the Normandy Four format with working groups and, of course, France is very active in this process.

I think France, as well as all other participants of the process, including Germany, Russia and Ukraine, is playing a very important role. 

I would also like to stress that the OSCE is a very important player to find ways of solution in this dispute, because after all, everybody in this format are members of the OSCE. Therefore, it gives a guarantee of objectivity and I am sure that the observers of OSCE are playing a very useful role. And maybe in the future OSCE observers will become more numerous.

 Read also: The OSCE may not be perfect, but it works well enough in Ukraine. 

RD: How do you see the role of the U.S.? How do you see its impact on the politics in the EU?

C.B.: It depends on the country.

RD: But in general?

C.B.: Traditionally we (the French) like to see ourselves as independent – it is a Gaullist tradition.

Of course, we are not out of the world and we experience the influences of other actors, including the U.S. But I think the French decision-making process is rather autonomous and independent.

Maybe some countries or some institutions in general are more sensitive to the American pressure, but you have to take into account the state of public opinion and the public opinion is split. There is a debate, which is normal in a democracy. 

RD: Russia and France have a long history of good relations with broad socio-cultural interaction. And there are a lot of connections between the Russians and the French: art, literature, music, cinema, etc. But for some reason this aspect is underutilized. It is completely overshadowed by the political agenda. In this regard, what role France could play to bring Europe and Russia closer to each other?

C.B.: I think that the starting point here is that Russia is in Europe and it is a fact. Moreover, Russia is our neighbor, so what is happening in our neighboring countries is very important for the stability of the entire Europe. Our concern about what has been happening in Ukraine is mostly a question between the EU and Russia, of course. 

Secondly, Russia had many cultural exchanges with France in the past. Catherine the Great had a long correspondence with Voltaire and Denis Diderot in the 18th century, but you must not forget that many of the high-ranking civil servants of the Tsar were of German origin.

When I was in Kaliningrad, I visited the grave of Immanuel Kant because during his time Konigsberg (the name of Kaliningrad before it became Russian. – Editor’s note) was the capital of East Prussia and, therefore, there are also strong links between Germany and Russia

Of course, what happened during WWII, when France and Russia were fighting the Nazis together is also of great importance. The famous Normandy-Niemen regiment, which was fighting together with the Soviet Air Force, is also a proud page in Franco-Russian history. There are many links between Russia and France, but Russia has also many links with other countries, like Germany for instance. 

Also, for good or bad, Russia has special relations with Poland and Hungary, which both experienced a big Soviet influence. This has created links, which are maintained through those who studied at the same universities.

Therefore, the problem is, and I insist on that, really between the European Union and Russia. And you cannot split and will not split the states of the EU by saying, “Well, particular country has very special relations with Russia.” That is true, but I mean we are committed and founding members of the EU from the beginning, from the 1950s. Therefore you must take that into account as well.

I think that the Normandy Four format of dealing with the Ukrainian crisis is the right one because France and Germany are playing very important roles on behalf of the EU in fact. 

RD: What can serve in your opinion as the uniting force for Russia and Europe in the current situation?

C.B.: I think, as I previously said, Russia is in Europe and of course, literature, theater, music, art, to name a few, are a common ground. We all belong to the same cultural background, which is very important.

Secondly, the main challenges will come from outside Europe, whether it is terrorism, whether it is the rise of Asia, because you have many thinkers in Asia who were saying that Europe already had its time and now the time of Asia has come again. 

So, we have to fight together, Europe and Russia, against terrorism both inside and outside of our countries. That is a very important task, of course, because this threat is common for all. 

And maybe also we have to deal with the rise of very important trends in Asia and I mean here not to fight with them but cooperate with them in a way that will bring a win-win situation.

 Read also: There is no Europe without Russia and no Russia without Europe. 

RD: Сan we say that currently the major threat to the EU is terrorism? Or what do you see as the main threat or challenge for the EU currently?

C.B.: I think there is not a threat of the same order that is coming from terrorism. We managed to deal with it and managed to deal with ISIS. But it is another register, of course.

Over the longer run, we have to stabilize also our competitive cooperation I would say. So it is more of a long-term goal.

As you see, the U.S. is proposing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to the Western European countries, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to the Eastern hemisphere countries, excluding China from it. And this is probably why China made a counterproposal, which is not very well known, but it stands for a wider free trade area, which could include Russia and wider Europe. 

So, what I am saying is that a new structure will appear one way or another. For instance, is it reasonable to discuss the world affairs in G8 or G7 format without China?

Maybe the G10 format or something will be more suitable, because when the G7 was created, those seven countries were the most powerful economies in the world. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, Russia was invited and the format was transformed into the G8. OK, fine – that was wise to do that.

But nowadays world challenges you cannot discuss without China, i.e. climate change, even the fight against terrorism. Therefore, maybe the format of those informal summits should look beyond the current moment.