EU and Russia (EUC Report)

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and the members of the European Union Committee on their excellent work in the production of this report, I feel bound to observe that this is a clear case of how events can move on so very quickly in the field of international relations.

When the committee’s report was published in May, no one could have predicted that events would change so rapidly. Even in the Recess, not many would have expected that the intervening months would bring such a dramatic change in the nature of relations with Russia. The changes that we witnessed over the summer have not only fundamentally altered the nature of relations with Moscow but put the strength of a European Union foreign policy most dramatically to the test, and Europe has been found wanting. Accordingly, this is a most timely debate, and the question of future interaction with Russia is vital to the security of the whole world.

I do not intend to focus my remarks totally on the recent, and ongoing, conflict in Georgia, but plainly it is relevant as the dispute has ramifications that affect our relationship. The intricacies of who is to blame for the conflict can be considered on a future occasion, but it is important to state that I am uneasy with Russia’s focus on becoming more assertive towards its neighbours—a policy that appears to have superseded the economic liberalisation that offered so much hope.

To underline my point, when Russia sent its troops into Georgia in August, we watched President Sarkozy, leading on behalf of the European Union, broker a deal designed to lead to peace. Sadly, the deal that was agreed left President Saakashvili of Georgia little or no room for manoeuvre and has legitimised the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in the disputed area.

However, my short remarks about Georgia serve rather more as a lesson to those ambitious for a European Union foreign policy than as a lesson about the situation in that troubled region. The reality is that the European Union has proved most enthusiastic at generating words and lengthy statements, but the practical effects on the ground are most disappointing, and even negligible. From a European Union perspective, we need to maintain good relations with Russia; it is a large and very powerful country, and our dependence on it for energy is critical. If a common foreign policy is to work, providing a stable basis for a satisfactory relationship with Russia must be a key starting point. Yet despite the importance of Russia, I fear that we are not doing enough to understand the nature and importance of other countries, which could have serious consequences for all of Europe.

It is evident that there is a clear lack of consensus among European Union member states about how best to approach the Russian Government. We need to be more effective at engaging with the Administration in Moscow, and should not be afraid of asserting our differences. The approach that we have witnessed from President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin does not accord with the experience of the wider European democratic structures. We need to be prepared to engage in the argument and to defend our principles. The European Union has proved far too timid in addressing this challenge.

I confess that I do not know a great deal about the practical interactions between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. I observe, however, that it appears that President Medvedev’s power base is very much in accord with those of Prime Minister Putin, and it appears that his authority depends very much on the strength of his Prime Minister. In the final months of Mr Putin’s reign as President of Russia, it became clear that an increasingly hard line was developing in Russia’s foreign affairs. This is a country that is not afraid of isolation and confrontation. Some argue that Russia is hungry to rewrite the final chapter of the Cold War, which still has a strong resonance in that country.

I believe that the objective of the Russian Government is not confrontation but that they have no compunction in using the means to achieve their ends. Russia is keen to maintain strong and positive relations with countries that comprise the European Union, on both a bilateral and a European basis. We should not be afraid of asserting our beliefs in the rule of law, but in expressing those concerns we should be careful not to give added weight to the political power of hard-line nationalists within the Russian political class.

I reject the argument that in Russia we have witnessed the growth of a new authoritarian capitalism; rather, I believe that Russia lacks a clear ideological philosophy beyond populist nationalism. What has been most depressing in the engagement between the European Union and Russia, however, is the failure to establish and defend a consistent line. I am inclined to speculate about how the position would be affected by, say, a common energy policy. I am not in favour of an energy policy devised by officials in Brussels and presented as a fait accompli; however, should member states’ Governments speak with a clear and consistent voice on energy matters, we would probably see a very different relationship with Russia.

The absence of a common line can only weaken our position in dealing with Russia, and when that situation is matched by grand, verbose statements emanating from Brussels, our standing is diminished yet further. This is a problem for Europe that needs urgently to be addressed.

I wish now to reflect on the common challenges that we face alongside the Russians. Russia shares a border with China and Iran, and its relations with those countries are complex and most interesting. Russia appears to have witnessed the economic growth of China with some concern, and I am not convinced that the relationship with the regime in Iran is sustainable. Levels of trade with Russia and Iran are positive, but I detect elements of defensive strategy in the relationship there. We need to bear this in mind in dealing with Russia’s neighbours. Military action against Russia would move the Russians further towards the Iranian Government and create an alliance that would not serve our interests.

In conclusion, we need to find a formula that enables the European Union to speak with one voice and to pull together firmly, as that will be the most effective way to engage with Russia. We must be pragmatic and deal with the situation that we face collectively. Observers of foreign policy matters will not be impressed by the way the European Union has conducted its relationship with Russia. The report provides a constructive appraisal of the state of our collective relationship. Whether or not the European Union is capable of delivering what is needed remains to be seen.

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 3:36 PM