The EU, Putin’s Russia and the Perseverance of Normative Foreign Policy

...or 'How many divisions does the Pope have?'

‘The Pope? How many divisions has he got?’ With these scoffing words, Joseph Stalin dismissed in 1935 the Vatican as a factor of any significance for the Soviet Union and its foreign policy. Today, almost 80 years later, the Soviet Union is long gone. The Pope, on his part, continues to rule from the Vatican without the help of armored divisions and attracts on a regular basis vast crowds to St. Peter’s Square or on his trips abroad.

The European Union does not have any divisions either, if we leave aside the small ‘battle groups’, which in any event exist to a greater extent on paper than on the ground. It, too, commits itself to a foreign policy based on ‘soft power’ and normative influence. And it, too, will outlast Putin’s Russia.

In times of crisis, it is of particular importance not to lose sight of the long-term. It cannot be contested that Putin managed to create new facts within a very short period, not least thanks to his divisions (even though operating a lot of the time without donning their insignia): Crimea is now de facto a part of Russia, and to be able to wrench it from him by military means is not only unlikely but extremely dangerous.

This could lead more than one commentator to the conclusion that the EU has once again failed completely in its foreign policy; that it does not have anything to counter the onslaught of military might and leverage in terms of energy supply; that diplomatic condemnations and economic sanctions (or incentives) are only a specious surrogate for real foreign policy and real power. According to this narrative, the EU will forever be confined to trying to catch up in the world and will never boldly take the lead. But this view is short-sighted in several regards.

It cannot be denied that EU foreign policy – including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), European Neighborhood Policy or Common Commercial Policy – operates more incrementally than impulsively. Security-related operations are not ‘rapid reaction’ but instead planned well in advance. Trade and association agreements, such as the one with Ukraine, require many years of negotiations. Association with the EU, let alone the accession of new Member States, takes time.

In stark contrast, as we could observe during the past weeks, integration into the Russian Federation can be achieved in record time: ‘Spontaneous self-defense militias’ – barricades – tanks – a referendum without international observers – legislation rushed through parliament – treaties signed – and voilà, Russia’s ‘Western enlargement’ is complete. For the time being, that is.

Compare that with the Eastern enlargement of the EU and its Eastern Partnership, which are characterized by long years of negotiations with the European Commission, tedious alignment with EU legislation (the acquis communautaire) and other criteria. In the case of Ukraine and the other countries of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), full EU membership is not even on the table in the foreseeable future, but for now ‘everything but institutions’ at best.

This sluggishness, however, is part of the system. The EU Treaties do not provide for a ‘commander-in-chief’, with his finger on the red button. Instead of the odd couple of testosterone-oozing Putin and docile Medvedev, the EU has a complex leadership triangle consisting of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. It is unlikely that we will ever see Ashton, van Rompuy or Barroso riding through the steppes equipped with a hunting rifle and knife, or even get a picture of them deerstalking on the Schuman roundabout in Brussels. And there are good reasons for that.

Instead, they are in a constant process of coordination with each other as well as with the governments of the 28 Member States, and since the Lisbon Treaty, also more intensely with the European Parliament. The EU does not have a ‘strongman’; it has strong institutions, including strong courts, which make sure that no branch gets the upper hand and also that the Member States are not completely overshadowed.

These institutions are not built on sand, but are founded on a common set of values. They orient their actions according to a catalogue of common objectives, which also extend to the domain of foreign policy. It is these values and objectives, alongside the economic attraction of the internal market, which draws European states from the post-Soviet area closer to the EU.

This is what underpins the sustainability of the EU’s approach to external relations, as opposed to the vicious cycle of revanchism.

Of course, such constitutional norms do not translate into reality overnight. Rash actions, threats, militaristic great power posturing or far-reaching sanctions at odds with the rule of law may at first glance create the impression of determination and pro-activity. In reality, such actions undermine an actor’s normative power, either that of a state or of the EU. Instead of bolstering the power of attraction, they stir up distrust – not least in states which in their history have been absorbed (repeatedly) into other empires.

In the case of Russia, the exhaustion of trans-border normative attraction became evident very quickly. After appeals to pan-Slavic brotherhood did not yield the desired results, it rapidly turned to threats, soon followed by the strictly national argument of ‘protecting Russian citizens abroad’ – form none other than these same Ukrainian ‘brothers’.

Professor Ian Manners, who coined the concept of ‘normative power Europe’, put it this way in an essay of 2008:‘long-term diffusion of ideas in a normatively sustainable way works like water on stone, not like napalm in the morning’. To counter the Russian threats and aggression with more threats and aggression – to fight fire with fire – may make the EU appear more like a ‘power’ to some. However, in this way it would ultimately forfeit itsnormative power. This applies in particular to the countries of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. They know all too well what it means to be stuck between ideological camps and powers bristling with guns, or to be reduced to a deployment area, backyard or buffer zone.

The EU does not have any divisions, and if we look at the state of the CFSP, it will not have them at its disposal anytime soon either. Nor can the EU promise access to heavenly realms like the Bishop of Rome, who is equally deprived of divisions of his own. Doing that would amount to grossly overrating life in the Internal Market and the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. But the EU has norms which are capable of reaching beyond its own borders and citizens. It brings with it the promise to these countries that being domineered by a larger power is not an inevitability. While NATO membership may serve an insurance against Russian aggression, normative power means voluntaryrapprochement towards the EU, i.e. wanting to come closer to it, without the necessity of any threats and military force.

In the emerging multipolar world, in order to be a ‘pole of attraction’ instead of a ‘pole of repulsion’ more than military might (and leverage in terms of energy supply) is required. From this vantage point, the Crimean crisis did not expose European weakness. Instead, it has revealed more clearly than ever the lack of any normative basis of Putin’s foreign policy, and ultimately its weakness and lack of sustainability. The current crisis concerning Ukraine is not a make-or-break for the EU. However, it shatters Russia’s credibility to represent a lasting vision of global governance for the coming decades. As U.S. President Barack Obama said in his speech in Brussels on 26 March: ‘After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology’.

The EU has not been able to prevent the annexation of Crimea by Russia, an act which is in clear violation of international law. However, in this crisis it is not the EU which is gambling away its normative clout. As Putin’s Russia clenches its fist after the ‘land grab’of Crimea, it is its normative power which is rapidly slipping through its fingers.

A German version of this post can be found on Verfassungsblog: On Matters Constitutional.

Further Reading

Active: Distinguished Speaker Series

The Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS) showcases eminent practitioners in international affairs and is the centerpiece of the Institute’s high-level engagement with practitioners and academics in the city…


Rule of Law

The Rule of Law Program fosters accountability and trust in societies in transition by supporting effective formal and informal justice institutions. The overarching goal…