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The New Normal: A Continental Drift or a Security Meltdown? A View from the Baltic

Commentary, 26 May 2016
International Security Studies, Russia, Global Security Issues, Europe
Not only is Europe facing multiple crises, but the nature of these crises and their depth were a source of disagreement between the global leaders who met recently at the 10th Lennart Meri conference. This major regional security gathering which bears the name of the late president of Estonia, takes place yearly in the country’s capital, Tallinn. The challenge stemming from an expansionist Russia dominated the debate; Europe’s vision, values and role in the world came under scrutiny as the continent adjusts to a ‘new normal’.

That Europe is facing a series of crises, both internal and external is hardly a source of either surprise or disagreement. The depth of these crises, however, is increasingly becoming a contested subject.  For example, should we see migration, populism or Russian revanchism as crises in themselves, or rather as symptoms of wider crises in Europe’s governability and of the breakdown of the post-war security architecture? Is the lack of solidarity, navel-gazing and self-doubt hampering the European Union’s (EU) ability to act, or is it threatening the very essence of the integration project itself? More importantly, what is the ‘new normal’, and how do we respond to it?

One does not need to look far to see that, not only the EU, but also its transatlantic partners are becoming increasingly reactive to events, lacking strategic goals and the ability to address them.  These issues are exemplified by the on-going contestation with Russia and the security situation in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.

The annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas have challenged the way European security was managed or, at the very least, perceived and conceptualised; security guarantees and strategic partnerships disappeared overnight to be replaced by the imposition of economic sanctions and the re-positioning of troops and military hardware. The goals and the impact of these measures still remain unclear and, despite a wide consensus on a greater role for the OSCE, the precise framework is in itself a matter of acute debate.

There is an inability to agree on fundamental questions connected to the management of the security situation and the latest iteration of the Lennart Meri conference brought to light the frustration felt by many in Europe with the so-called Normandy Format - the effort by a group of senior diplomatic representatives of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France to resolve the conflict in Ukraine - and to the on-going failures to fully implement the Minsk Agreements which were meant to provide for a peaceful resolution to the situation there. Despite strong support for continuous sanctions against Russia, there is also a growing acknowledgment that sanctions alone will not force the Russians to implement the Minsk Agreements and that, in domestic terms, they may in fact have helped to rally support for the Kremlin. In fact, despite recognising the impact of sanctions on the Russian energy sector, this year’s Lennart Meri conference participants evinced little belief that sanctions have achieved anything other than contributing to the stagnation of the Russian economy and maintaining Europe’s position of disapproval over Russia’s actions. 

Furthermore, the Normandy Format – touted by some in Paris or Berlin as a model for the future handling of tensions with Russia - is increasingly being criticised for its exclusion of other European powers. The Polish perspective is that, since the EU Member States created the position of a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, then it should be that person – currently Ms Federica Mogherini - not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande – who should be negotiating on behalf of the Union. This argument was further endorsed by Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister, who, in a nod to his famed 2009 Berlin speech, commented that while he still fears German inactivity more than German power, his preference is for German leadership through European institutions, and not for German unilateral action.

But the reality, of course, is that EU Member States still see Europe’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as a ‘power-multiplier’ when it suits their own needs and as a hindrance when it does not. Solidarity and multilateralism are only relevant means in as much as they are capable of achieving results. To this extent, the Polish position should be seen as the result of frustration over its exclusion from the table, rather than as a different expression of an ill-defined European ‘interest’.  However much foreign policy experts and politicians romanticise notions of European and transatlantic solidarity and continue to point accusatory fingers at Russia, it is the need to define shared European interests that ought to be a priority. To borrow the old maxim, Europe should have neither eternal friends nor eternal enemies; only eternal interests.

Unfortunately, there was very little discussion at the Lennart Meri Conference about what those interests ought to be. Instead, discussion all too often turned into a blame-game. For example, Russia was blamed for dividing European countries, or for seeking to impose a second Yalta Agreement (a ‘Yalta 2.0’) on to the European continent. However, what was lacking was a more pragmatic understanding that if European countries allow themselves to be divided, the Kremlin is likely to seize the opportunity to exploit this weakness. While all participants agreed that any attempts to impose or accept a second Yalta-style agreement leading to the division of the continent must be avoided, nobody questioned whether the Helsinki Format for dealing with European security, which entails a patient process of dialogue based on an established set of rules and existing structures, was still adequate for today’s continent.

Significantly, Estonia’s outgoing President, Ilves Toomas, noted that, in the current context, Europeans must stop talking about ‘democratising’ Russia because such language was destabilising and could be equated to a desire for ‘regime change’, when taken in the context of the increasingly ‘tsarist’ tendencies of territorial aggrandisement exhibited by the Kremlin. On the eve of NATO’s Warsaw Summit, therefore, we must recognise that we are no longer dealing with the same Russia that signed the 1997 Founding Act with the Alliance; our task, therefore, to invest in European security capabilities and provide both the vision and the capacity to rein in any future expansionist tendencies.

Overall, therefore, the ‘new normal’ that was discussed in the Estonian capital was perhaps far more pessimistic than that heralded by the US historian Francis Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War. Our ability to manage the challenges currently facing Europe however, depends on our ability to define our strategic aims and interests, and capacity to pursue them. This does not mean merely reacting to crises and other actors’ actions. But it does entail regaining our confidence in shaping our  future and in imagining a new security order.

Igor Merheim-Eyre is a doctoral researcher at the University of Kent, Canterbury

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