Russo-European relations have reached an impasse. While we started to see a consensus of sorts develop amongst EU member states at the recent EU-Russia summit, there was no definitive agreement. Chancellor Merkel stands out as uniquely well-placed to push through this gridlock.
She is the only leader in the EU that can simultaneously engage the other EU members (in particular those to the East); credibly stand up to President Putin on the basis of a toughened policy platform; and silence the overly optimistic perspective towards Russia entertained by significant factions within the Social Democratic Party, her coalition partner.
Before Merkel can make a credible attempt at forging a new EU consensus, she will have to fight a domestic battle with her SPD foreign minister. Steinmeier is a Schroeder confidant who Ms. Merkel inherited as part of the Faustian “grand bargain” that the close election in 2005 forced her party into. However, as the German economy picks up steam, she is increasingly liberated politically to confront some of her more awkward partners at home, especially now that she has admirably scored the easy foreign policy “wins” such as repairing the German-American relationship.
At the same time, Merkel is nearing the end of her presidency of the European Union and can shed some of the more prosaic duties incumbent to the position and step out from under the weight of trying to fix the European Constitution. In addition, the ascension of the openly Russo-skeptic Nicolas Sarkozy to the Elysée deprives Mr. Putin of another European ally and further enables Europe to assume a more robust stance towards Russia.
Merkel has managed to resist President Putin’s charms. Such behavior was warmly welcomed by the eastern EU states, although they feel that Merkel should try for an even clearer break with the cozy Russo-German relationship of the Schroeder era. Merkel has a good track record vis-à-vis the new EU members. In her first major EU Summit in December 2005, she was hailed for her abilities in brokering a budget deal. As a bridge between East and West, she might attempt to reassure the smaller states and curb their sometimes shrill rhetoric by convincing their leaders that their concerns are being heard.
Thus far, Chancellor Merkel has allowed the Russian portfolio to be managed out of the Foreign Ministry—now is the moment to draw them back to the Chancellery. Once this is in hand, she can manage the Eastern member states’ concerns, bearing in mind the fact that they are members of the Union and must be heard. Until some sort of internal coherence is established, it is difficult to imagine how the EU can convince Putin’s Russia that it is time to be constructive. Finally, she must draw a firmer line with Russia, obliging them to recognize that their relationship with Europe is symbiotic rather than a zero-sum game.
- Alexander Graf Lambsdorff on The Russia Conundrum: EU and US Should Cooperate with the ‘Imitation Democracy’
- Alexander Rahr on why the EU Should Bring Russia Closer
- CSIS report: Russian Energy Pressure Fails to Unite Europe