The relationship with Russia has been one of the most contentious issues among EU member states, and has become a very visible test of the Union’s political cohesion and foreign policy capacity.
It is generally understood that the European Union (EU) has the ambition to establish itself as an effective foreign and security policy actor but has difficulties doing so. In recent years, however, the failures of this ambition have become clearer. The entity called ‘the West’ is now more differentiated, arguably even disintegrating to some extent during the Trump presidency. While the Joe Biden administration may ease trade disputes with Europe, US disengagement from European security is likely to continue in the context of deepening US–China rivalry, the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific region, and political polarization in Washington. At the same time, China’s intention to play a much greater role in Europe, combined with the increased resources it brings to the table, has created new challenges for an actor such as the EU, which has its basis in economic cooperation yet aspires to promote certain political and social values in its relationships abroad.
Russia presents serious challenges to the EU’s interests and declared values on a variety of fronts, not least in the security realm and due to its actions in the Eastern Neighbourhood. The relationship with Russia has been one of the most contentious issues among EU member states. It has become a very visible test of the EU’s political cohesion and foreign policy capacity, in particular since Moscow disdains Brussels and consistently prioritizes bilateral relations over those with the EU. This was nowhere more obvious than during the visit of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to Moscow in February 2021. The EU has long struggled to reach consensus on an effective Russia policy, especially since the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing destabilization of Donbas by Russia in 2014. While agreeing on a series of different types of sanctions, member states remain divided in their assessment of the essence of the Russian regime under Vladimir Putin, and in their willingness to cooperate with Moscow. The ‘five guiding principles’ that have constituted the framework of the EU’s Russia policy since their adoption in 2016 have proved too disparate to serve as a consistent and impactful strategy, even after their ‘makeover’ in 2021. The failure of the proposal made by the outgoing German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and supported by French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Council meeting in June 2021, which would have resulted in an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to participate in a discussion with all EU heads of state and government, clearly indicates that divisions persist on the question of how to deal with Russia.
This paper explores the extent to which the Franco-German ‘motor’ can be mobilized in the sphere of Russia policy.
This paper explores the extent to which the Franco-German ‘motor’, often invoked as a catalyst for ensuring that certain policies gain traction in the EU context, can be mobilized in the sphere of Russia policy. The cornerstone of French and German collaboration on Russia has so far been the ‘Normandy Format’, a mechanism intended to manage and ideally resolve the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in Donbas. However, the two countries’ determined cooperation on that issue has neither brought peace to Ukraine nor translated into a joint approach to Russia overall. During Macron’s presidency, the track record of the Franco-German motor has suffered some disappointments for a variety of reasons, attributable to both sides. There has been reluctance on Germany’s part to embrace Macron’s concept of European ‘strategic autonomy’, and later his initiative to build a new ‘architecture of security and trust’ in Europe together with Russia. France, meanwhile, has remained equivocal about Germany’s insistence on pursuing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. These projects have stirred controversy and raised concern in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as beyond the EU.
The analysis scrutinizes both German and French approaches to Russia, and attempts to pinpoint similarities and differences that may have been overlooked or, conversely, overstated in the past. It further endeavours to differentiate structural commonalities and divergences – i.e. those likely to outlast the current political constellation – from contingent ones. This is all the more important because of recent and upcoming elections in both countries: the German legislative elections of September 2021, which by all indications have resulted in a three-party coalition government led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD); and the French presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2022. Two main questions are tackled here. What is the potential of harnessing the Franco-German motor to address the relationship with Russia? And what are the implications of this potential for the EU–Russia relationship?