May 9, 2008
The end of eastern Europe’s honeymoon
SEEN from a German point of view, eastern Europe’s disenchantment with the European Union (EU) is both untrue and fantastically offensive. How can the countries of eastern Europe feel betrayed by Germany when it was German pressure that got them into the EU (far too early, in the view of some existing members)? Germany is a huge investor in the region, a guarantee of stability, and a strong advocate for the ex-communist countries: that, at least, is the prevailing view in Berlin.
Yet the bleak assessment of senior policy-makers in eastern Europe is rather different. “The EU is broken. So is NATO. The only thing left is America” says one.
The reason for their gloom is the feeling that Germany now prizes its relations with Russia far above the interests of the countries in between. Germany’s support for the North Stream gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed, bypassing Poland, was a harbinger of this. Germany’s role at the NATO summit in Bucharest, where it blocked American plans to give Ukraine and Georgia clear pathways to membership of the alliance, reinforced this impression.
You bring the roses, I’ll bring the gas
Few see a sinister meeting of minds between Russia and Germany. Instead, they blame money. “The Germans have made their decision: tens of billions of euros in business in exchange for friendship with the regime,” says another top east European diplomat. American officials echo these worries, albeit more cautiously.
The result is to cast doubt, at least in some eyes, on Germany’s role in both the EU and NATO. Suppose, for example, that Russia were to provoke a confrontation with Lithuania over transit to its Kaliningrad enclave, or over language and citizenship laws in Estonia and Latvia, countries where tens of thousands of people have Russian citizenship? (Such scenarios are highly unlikely, but not impossible: it is the presence of Russian citizens in Abkhazia that gives a partial justification for the Kremlin’s intervention there.)
How would NATO then respond to a request for assistance under Article V of the Atlantic Charter? Imagine the meeting of the North Atlantic Council as it considered the matter: would it stand unequivocally by its new members? Or would Germany call for calm, and suggest that the parties settle their dispute elsewhere?
German officials find such notions preposterous. The best way to avoid confrontation with Russia is engagement, they say. The bigger and better the trade and investment relationship with the West, the less likely the Kremlin is to play geopolitical games. The ex-communist countries should stop whinging and follow the example of Germany—and many other west European countries—in building solid and sensible ties with Russia.
Perhaps they should. Most new member states of the EU and NATO are now determinedly non-confrontational, at least publicly, in their dealings with Russia. “When we joined the EU, we really thought it meant that we could stand up to them. Now we realise that we have to do deals like everyone else,” says a Baltic parliamentarian.
The main exception is Lithuania, which is vetoing the start of EU talks with Russia on a new partnership and co-operation agreement in the hope of toughening the negotiating mandate. That position looks remarkably isolated, though for a country which 18 years ago shocked the world and defied the Kremlin by declaring the restoration of its pre-war independence, isolation is a relative concept.
It may be right, and it is certainly easy, for big rich countries like Germany to do deals with Russia. For smaller and poorer countries that were once part of the Soviet empire, it will never be quite the same. That is something that policymakers in Berlin seem to have some difficulty grasping.