Russia

If the Greek debt crisis is teaching the European Union some harsh lessons about the design of its monetary union, no less serious is the message coming from Ukraine about the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.  Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s newly elected president, agreed a deal with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia last week that gave Moscow a 25-year extension of the right to station its Black Sea fleet in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.  In return, Ukraine secured a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas deliveriesRead more

You know that the European Union is in trouble when Russia offers more intelligent advice on the eurozone’s debt crisis than Spain, the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, disclosed the other day that he had recommended to George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, that the Greek government should request assistance from the International Monetary Fund to sort out its problems.

This is exactly the course of action advocated by several non-eurozone EU countries as well as a host of distinguished economists and, dare I say it, the editorial writers of the Financial Times.  As it happens, I don’t agree – if by IMF assistance we mean financial help.  The IMF will be involved, along with the European Central Bank, the European Commission and eurozone finance ministers, in monitoring Greece’s public finances and providing technical aid as required. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.  Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates.  Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.

It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too.  Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power.  In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.  The European Union has kept Belarus at arm’s length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko.  Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.

There was something surreal about the visit.  Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, praised Berlusconi as “a global, planetary man of politics, our friend”.  Berlusconi responded: “Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see.”  One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi’s famous sense of humour. Read more

There is an amusing and rather revealing story doing the rounds in Brussels about a conversation that took place at last month’s European Union-Russia summit in Stockholm.

In the course of a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a mischievous allusion to the EU’s imminent institutional changes, under which Barroso will for the first time deal with a full-time EU president representing the bloc’s 27 governments – Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s ex-prime minister. Read more

As of today the European Union is going about its business under a new set of rules known as the Lisbon treaty.  In Brussels this is universally seen as a good thing because, to quote Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Parliament’s Greens faction, the treaty “sets the framework for increased European democracy, better decision-making, higher levels of transparency and closer participation of European citizens”.

Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t.  One thing’s for sure: the new arrangements strengthen the European Parliament – hence the enthusiasm of Harms and Cohn-Bendit.  But the Lisbon treaty’s reforms are like the ingredients of a good dinner.  Use them intelligently, and all will be well.  Forget to put in the garlic and the peppers, and it will taste terrible.  In other words, wise leadership and a sense of responsibility to something higher than one’s domestic political audience are going to be necessary to make Lisbon work effectively. Read more

October 30 saw one of the most important moments so far of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in Russia.  On a video blog posted on the presidential website, he squarely addressed the issue of the mass repressions carried out under Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator from the mid-1920s to 1953.  I agree with Tomas Hirst, who wrote on the Prospect magazine blog that this was a brave step on Medvedev’s part.

Medvedev didn’t simply condemn Stalin’s crimes.  He criticised Russians – and, sad to say, there are an awful lot of them – who make excuses for Stalin by saying some supposed “supreme goals of the state” justified the arrest, deportation, imprisonment, execution and death by starvation of millions of people.  It is still quite common to hear Russians defend Stalin by saying that he led the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany.  Significantly, however, Medvedev entitles his video blog “Memory of National Tragedies is as Sacred as the Memory of Victories”.  Read more

It’s striking that the Czech constitutional court announced its approval of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday morning just as the prospect of another Russian gas import crisis began to loom on the EU’s horizon.  For even though the news from Prague is welcome, a moment’s reflection is all you need to remind yourself that the Lisbon treaty will, in and of itself, do very little to help the EU address its most serious foreign and economic policy problems.

The sheer sense of relief at adopting a new EU treaty – it’s taken eight years, required two different texts, gone through three failed referendums and caused endless trouble in countries such as the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK – risks fostering the delusion that everything will be better once Lisbon is in force.  But this is to fall into the trap of assuming that process can substitute for substance (see Monday’s blog on how the same fallacy affects the EU’s approach to relations with other big powers). Read more