Audronius Ažubalis. The new political leadership of the European Union faded in St Petersburg

Audronius Ažubalis
DELFI / Domantas Pipas

Less than one week ago, when releasing the text on the relations between major European Union powers and the US, I did not expect myself to be writing so soon again. At the time when the whole world was intently waiting for the findings of the investigation into the downing of the Malaysia airlines aircraft (298 deaths, including 80 children), French President Emmanuel Macron, together with Vladimir Putin, President of Russia that had shot down the aircraft, met in St. Petersburg where they discussed joint, bright and courageous future.

“I listened to the Russian President’s delivery with great interest. Dear Vladimir, I believe that we indeed must work together,” said Mr Macron after Putin’s speech without concealing his admiration. Even though that was actually the day when western investigators confirmed the ferocious crime committed by the Kremlin’s army and its direct military involvement in Ukraine, Mr Macron referred to the strong links between Russia and France in the international political arena: “I trust that thanks to these relations we can find a solution and work together in all directions, be it Ukraine, the Middle East, Iran, Syria, or be it multilateral approaches in international politics.” Mr Macron basically did not express any criticism to Putin whom he called “a great leader”, and voiced the hope that France and Russia would work “hand in hand” in order to find a solution in, as he described it, “the most complicated phase in the history of the countries”.

The International Economic Forum held in St. Petersburg saw not only the exchange of pleasant declarations but also signing of agreements consolidating them. The French President was accompanied by a sizeable delegation of French entrepreneurs who did not leave with empty hands. An agreement on the investment of more than EUR 2 billion by French oil and gas giant Total in liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the Arctic region of Russia was reached during the forum. And even though LNG production technology is excluded from the list of US and EU sanctions against Moscow, financing of such projects from the Western banks is being restricted. One should take note here of the answer given by Mr Patrick Pouyanné, President of Total, which shows the French business approach to sanctions. In response to the question about the sanctions against the Kremlin and Total’s business in Russia, he said that “the best way to be resistant to sanctions is not to have sanctions altogether”.

To be fair, we have to acknowledge that Mr Macron did warn the Kremlin that France would not be able to approve of the termination of the sanctions until the issue of the war in Ukraine is settled and Russia withdraws from the Donbass. However, this statement appeared odd since the same meeting discussed the matter of Russia’s involvement in international conflict resolution, the war in Ukraine included. May a perpetrator really act as a judge in his own case?

An attempt to separate the Kremlin’s regime and economic relations with Russia is a tried and tested self-defeating attempt. Over the last 10 years alone, there have been a large number of such attempts, the biggest and best known fiasco being the one that occurred during Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton‘s term. Nevertheless, the President of France is not the only one. A few weeks ago, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Economy of Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel herself visited Moscow and Sochi. The organisation of such a high level “European Week in Russia” by Berlin shows that political and economic contacts with the Kremlin are increasingly returning to what would be viewed as “normal relations” looking from the perspective of German strategic culture. One of the points discussed at the meeting was the rescue of the Nord Stream 2 that is heavily criticised by some EU Member States and the White House, the latter even proposing sanctions for companies involved in developing the gas pipeline.

Regrettably, the “dialogue” of the major EU states with Russia leads to obvious cooling of their relations with the US. Starting from high-ranking EU bureaucrats and ending with political leaders of major powers, there have been increasing proposals for greater autonomy and independence from the United States in the area of defence. Similar declarations were made in St Petersburg, in the margins of the Forum, to which Mr Putin reacted in a very positive manner and even openly pledged Russia’s support for such aspirations of EU Member States.

In this context, we have to ask ourselves whether the shift of France and Germany from Trans-atlantics to the European concert with Russia, even though maintaining the sanctions for a while and not really fulfilling nor planning to fulfil the NATO‘s defence obligations (Germany) but rather increasing the flow of trade with Russia, is a factor that boosts our national security. Raising and discussing these issues must encourage us to find solutions to overcome the current situation. What could at this point contribute to the renewal of the quality relations between the EU and the US? First of all, as I have already pointed out in my earlier texts, changes should take place in our minds. EU countries should not direct the EU project towards eurocentrism. The geopolitical and cultural power of the EU must be based on the Euro-Atlantic civilisation. In other words, we need to go back to the transatlantic idea of Europe.

It is not only political or military but also economic cooperation with the US and the United Kingdom that can contribute to a successful transatlantic partnership. The socio-economic development in the EU is built on a “European model” which focuses on social component and, in particular, social security. This is EU’s strength, but it could also serve as a basis for a potential major weakness, notably, when it comes to global competition. The competitiveness of the EU can be achieved only if its economy is open to equitable transatlantic partnership with the US. As we know from historical experience, Russia is very keen on politicising economic instruments, therefore, Europe has no other choice. It is only in a common trade area with the US by promoting reciprocal transatlantic investment can the EU maintain its competitiveness in relation to China and other emerging international actors. A new EU-US trade deal proposed by Donald Trump to the German Chancellor in exchange for the suspension of Nord Stream 2 would create the world’s largest free trade area in history, prevent the practice of the unilateral imposition of customs duties or other taxes and contribute to reduction of trade regulation within the borders of the EU, which is so much needed by European business.

The EU must also keep close ties with the United Kingdom that is leaving the Community. In order to make its voice heard better, Lithuania must ensure fair negotiations on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, based on mutual respect, the ultimate objective being to maintain the UK as far as possible integrated with the EU.

Finally, in addition to the technical measures, we must not be afraid to voice the truth about collaboration with dictators and their friends, especially in view of the fact that, based on the latest findings of the investigation into the downing of the Malaysian aircraft, the truth and facts are on our side. It is exactly this and sometimes the uncomfortable questions we ask ourselves as well as loyalty to traditional foreign policy principles, rather than pursuing short-term trends, are the factors that will ensure success in the longer term.

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