Fuck the EU. These were the words uttered in February by the US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland during a secretly monitored conversation she had with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R Pyatt. Most of the media attention which followed focused on the undiplomatic language. However, the substance of the recorded conversation was actually more embarrassing.
The two diplomats were casually discussing who they intended to see comprise the proposed Ukrainian coalition and how they would ensure that their preferences were realised. One method they mentioned, and agreed on, was harnessing the UN to their cause. The UN was preferred to the EU. Indeed they spoke of its general secretary, Ban Ki-moon as if he were a lowly official whom they could direct as they saw fit. No bad language for Mr Ban!
But the most interesting question is why exactly Ms Nuland felt hostile to the EU and what her hostility reveals. The hostility is surprising in that the EU was engaged in a campaign to bring Ukraine into its orbit. And isn’t that what the Americans would want? The explanation is that the EU speaks with a forked tongue. Over the past decade the union has not taken the trouble of resolving the reality that its vital interests and those of its longtime US ally are not identical into forging a coherent foreign policy. The Americans, who have been left on more than one occasion to deal with messy European contradictions, have sometimes responded with irritation. One can have a certain sympathy.
As it happens the Americans are now also struggling for foreign policy coherence. This is largely because earlier comforting certainties have become unstuck. Before questions arose around the effective reach of the US military and its capacity to engineer satisfactory regime change, America aspired to what was sometimes referred to as “full spectrum dominance”, which means being the boss of everyone. Things were certainly simpler in those days. Under Clinton and Bush this simple strategy, as applied in Europe, involved Nato expansion eastwards in a partnership with the EU designed to extend western political culture and keep Russia down in the hole.
This, in large measure, explains why the US has favoured further EU integration and has been hostile to Britain’s blocking tactics. The EU was not to be, as Japan had been during the Cold War, merely an economic power. It was to be a political and military power wedded to Nato and the interests of the US. The US approved of the European project as a means of getting beyond Henry Kissinger’s frustrated question “Who do you call when you want to call Europe?” America was all in favour of the EU getting its act together secure in the belief it would be a good ally and never a serious competitor.
Europe appeared to go along with this and under the Lisbon dispensation politics was somewhat discounted in favour of business and business meant spreading the blessings of liberal democracy. In Lisbon mood the EU’s serious politicians appeared to look away and effectively outsourced foreign policy to an entity known as the EU External Action Service which was not led by major politicians. Its leader is Baroness Catherine Ashton, a relatively minor British labour politican who was quite at home with the Clinton-Bush strategy of keeping the Russians down. Her title is EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. She took to her role with gusto and she was fully authorised.
When Baroness Ashton visited Tbilisi she praised the Georgian people for “positive democratic conduct” and discussed NATO membership for this small Caucasian country which has long been under Russian influence. After Tbilisi, she went to Central Asia, beginning in Kyrgyzstan, before visiting Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. During her time in what is effectively Russia’s back yard, Ashton stressed the EU’s support for democratic and economic reforms, the importance of the rule of law, human rights and judicial reform, trade, security and energy. Baroness Ashton also met with NGOs and civil society groups to emphasise the vital role that they play and the importance of their voices being heard. In Bishkek, she chaired the EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting where the EU’s central Asia strategy was discussed, including ways to promote a secure and prosperous region, particularly looking to the future of Afghanistan.
With only a few years hindsight the notion that the West can remake large swathes of the world in its own image and likeness seems quite deluded.
Victoria Nuland, like most US officials of her rank, is a political figure. She would have been very approving of Baroness Ashton’s work. Nuland was appointed by Obama, although she was known to be a committed neo-con. Previously she served under Bush as policy adviser to Dick Cheney. She is married to the neo-con intellectual Robert Kagan, a director of the Project for a New American Century. It is unlikely Ms Nuland ever used the F-word in connection with Baroness Ashton.
So what happened to change this cosy US-EU set-up? Essentially, and quite early on, it became clear that politics would not go away nor could politics be consigned to the margins of life. In the nature of things politics is always central to foreign policy. Basically the real world of political interests intervened. Behind the policy of weakening Russia and ensuring it would never re-emerge as a threat, Europe’s real politicians were becoming increasingly aware of the actual importance of this massively wealthy and nuclear-armed country on its borders. Political forces in Europe, especially in Germany, began to engage with the Russians and to stand back from the process of Weimarisation which many realised would inevitably lead to a backlash. A backlash from a minnow is one thing but a backlash from Russia is quite another matter.
There were early signs that the EU was aware of its own interests and could not consent to being ligatured to the US grand narrative. Europe – that is “old Europe” ‑ was decidedly cool on the Iraq war. This was an inevitable European position born of the experience of war, an experience which shaped postwar European politics, one of whose principles was not crossing another country’s borders. Since the mid-twentieth century, Europe has devoted itself to avoiding war. Naturally Europeans do not want wars near their territory. Wars can spread. The US, with all those oceans around it, is in a quite different geopolitical position and has a very different history.
In 2008, when the Russians invaded NATO aspirant Georgia, it was the French president rather than a US representative who jumped on a plane and brokered a cessation of hostilities. Significantly Baroness Ashton was only brought in late in the day and more as a spear-carrier than anything else. The agreement was not to the taste of the pro-Western Georgian government. One frustrated senior official spoke of “the impotence and inability of both Europe and the United States to be unified”. The US media generally took the view that the Russians had got the better deal.
It’s quite possible that Sarkozy was at the receiving end of US comments at the time which may have involved the F-word. The Crimean and Ukrainian situation is basically a re-run of the Georgian situation and once again the Europeans have looked to their own core interests.
Responding to the implosion of a country on EU borders Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, flew to Kiev in the hope of getting both sides talking. Sensibly the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, whose country abuts Ukraine, was asked to join. The negotiations included the EU delegation, the beleaguered president Yanukovich, the three opposition leaders and a Russian representative. The USA was not invited. Significant agreements were achieved. There were to be new presidential elections in December, a return to the 2004 constitution and the release of Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. The compromise appeared to end a long period of civil unrest. The US, however, was not pleased and was determined to elbow its way back to centre stage. Thus Ms Nuland’s “Fuck the EU”, to which the US ambassador replied “exactly”.
The other major and continuing issue facing Europe which has brought politics back to centre stage is the economic crisis. While the problems facing Europe in this area are far from over it is clear the early danger that the entire EU project might collapse has passed. And everybody knows this was not the work of businessmen or bankers but of politicians and in particular Europe’s leading politician, Angela Merkel. Interestingly, Merkel has made her position on Crimea very clear. Europe will not be jumping up and down to please Washington: “I consider the annexation of Crimea to be a unique case.” Nothing to see here, move along, is the message.
The current crisis on the EU’s eastern borders will almost certainly contribute to deeper politics in Europe. If this occurs the contradiction between its missionary liberalism and its core interests may be resolved in favour of the latter. One cannot be sure what the engine of such a deeper EU politics might be but those who say it will be the euro zone are probably correct. A significant indication that the process is under way would be the neutering of the EU External Action Service
If this benign course is followed it is likely that when the dust settles the US will accept it has a genuine friend in the EU but that the two entities’ interests do not entirely coincide. It is likely the US will learn to live with that and will continue to support European political integration. The situation with Russia, however, is another matter altogether.
Partly as a result of the humiliations Russia suffered following the collapse of the Soviet Union and widespread alarm at the attempts of NATO to encircle what remained, the country has become quite belligerent. And, of course, the EU played a significant role in this regrettable outcome. In Russia some fairly absurd geopolitical fantasies have gained currency (See “The Errand-Boys of Europe” in the current drb). The underlying Russian desire is to reverse losses of territory and influence to the west and to the east. In the west, Russia desires a weak and fragmented Europe as the best means of advancing its influence. This is quite logical and in order to promote this agenda it is making friends with the nationalist far right in Europe, the forces who oppose European integration.
In Hungary, for example, Putin has established good relations with the anti-EU Jobbik party which has just won over twenty per cent of the popular vote. Foreign Affairs magazine reports that Moscow’s relations with France’s National Front have also been growing stronger. Marine Le Pen, the party leader, visited Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of the State Duma leader Sergei Naryshkin, a close associate of Putin’s. She also met deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and discussed issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement (and gay marriage!). Le Pen’s spokesman, Ludovic De Danne, recently recognised the results of the Crimea referendum and stated in an interview with Voice of Russia radio that, “historically, Crimea is part of Mother Russia”.
It is also reported that the Kremlin has links with Greece’s Golden Dawn movement and Bulgaria’s far right anti-EU Ataka party. Jobbik, National Front, and Ataka all sent election observers to validate the Crimea referendum (as did the Austrian Freedom Party, the Belgian Vlaams Belang party, Italy’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord, and Poland’s Self-Defence).
The Russian embassy in Rathgar has probably told Moscow not to bother courting Sinn Féin, that its anti EU position is essentially a legacy matter which will be jettisoned in due course. Whether the London embassy has suggested cosying up to the vast swathes of conservative England for whom the EU is anathema can only be a matter of conjecture.
There is a sense in which Russian hostility to a politically coherent Europe is a consequence of the EU’s earlier incoherent policies, typified by Baroness Ashton’s authorised antics. It is now in the interests of the EU to set about calming the bear at its door, convincing the Russians that mutual respect and trade is in everyone’s interest and that no one will benefit from a new great game conducted in Eastern Europe.