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A new EU: Russia agreement “in Polish”?

Submitted by on 04 May 2011 – 09:57

Dr. Margarita Šešelgytė, Studies Director, Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University, Lithuania

Majority of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) states look forward with the excitement to the forthcoming Polish presidency in the EU Council. Being the most resourceful among the so called “new” members and already for some time acting as one of the EU big powers, Poland has the best chances to bring new ideas to the EU agenda. Many of CEE countries in addition share a number of common interests with Poland and therefore are even more interested in possible outcomes of the Polish presidency. If Poland is successful at least in introducing those interests into the EU agenda that would be a great benefit for all those countries. Some of the shared interests include energy issues, EU – NATO relations, Eastern Neighbourhood and last but not least – EU – Russia relations.

The Polish presidency programme among other presidency priorities points out the establishment of “new framework for cooperation between the EU and Russia” which may eventually lead to a new Russia – EU agreement. This is a very ambitious, but at the same time a legitimate claim, as Poland has the expertise on the issue and is identified as the one who usually talks about Russia by other EU members. Moreover high ambitions and increasing political influence of Poland within the EU provides it with better opportunities to “make things happen” than its predecessors from “new” Europe. Therefore there are the right preconditions to expect that Poland will be bringing Russian issues to the EU agenda.

There are at least three factors that should be considered when anticipating the success of an attempt to establish a new framework for EU – Russia cooperation: the role of the presidency, the demand of EU, and the interests of Russia.

Even in the pre- Lisbon institutional environment around 95 % of the presidency agenda has usually been inherited from the previous presidencies or prescribed by developments of international politics. With the Lisbon Treaty coming into force the powers of the presidency in the field of external relations have been reduced even more. Though it does not mean that the presidency cannot influence the EU agenda at all, the agenda setting process after Lisbon involves more other players. It is noteworthy that the success of the presidency is usually judged by the flexibility, neutrality and ability to meet EU demands rather than ardent promotion of national interests. Therefore even if Poland is successful in installing EU – Russia relations into EU agenda the real content of the issue will be the result of numerous consultations and negotiations that in the end might acquire a shape which is the least compatible with Polish and other “new” members’ intentions.

The second factor that comes into play when anticipating the chances of the issue to effectively reach the EU agenda is the demand for it on the EU level. How much the EU needs and is ready for the new Russia – EU framework? Even though it might be considered that there is a need for a new level of relations with Russia at the EU and growing EU self confidence vis a vis Russia might strengthen the demand, the readiness of the EU to go forward is hampered a great deal by too many diverging interests of member states regarding Russia related issues such as e.g. energy security. It is not very likely that Poland would manage to reconcile all existing differences in the given time.

Finally and the most crucial factor in this regard is the interest of Russia in a new EU – Russia cooperation arrangement. It seems that Russia for the time being is more concerned with its membership in WTO and potentially with the new European security organization proposed by Medvedev, while the EU by Russia is viewed more from the instrumental perspective. If Poland is able to propose to Russia e.g. some form of Schengen, it may increase the attention of Russia towards cooperation, but for the time being it is unlikely that the EU is ready for this step. Moreover any bargains with Russia during the Polish presidency will be carefully scrutinized by Eastern European neighbours. Being a big supporter of the Eastern neighbourhood, Poland will have to think hard how to reconcile support for neighbours with the policy towards Russia. The lack of interest for the EU in Russia will be even less in the short term due to forthcoming presidential elections.

Though it seems that it is hard to expect a new EU – Russia agreement “in Polish”, one does not have to underestimate a possibility of a similar agreement seeing the day light a few years later, and in order to make this happen, now is a good time to start talking about it at the EU. Therefore the expectations and stakes for the forthcoming presidency are still high.