Incompatibility of regional integration or geopolitics: the EU and Russia aim to influence neighbours decisions on trade agreements

Russia’s increased efforts to deter its neighbours, especially Ukraine (but also Armenia) from signing Association agreements with the EU have been in the news lately.  New Russian trade restrictions for Ukraine have been clearly announced as a reaction against the intentions of Ukraine to sign an Association agreement with the EU, with Deep Free Trade area  provisions. Russia has aimed to move Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union instead, like Armenia, whose President announced in September that it would participate in Russia’s regional integration Union. Predictably, Russia’s strong arm tactics has not been welcomed by the EU and countries like Armenia may earn a warning from European Commissioner Fuele that their chances of integrating closer with the EU may be diminished. This is clearly a new and harsher turn in Russia’s policy towards its neighbours, as also evidenced by the Russian sanctions on Moldovan wine announced on 10 September 2013. All of these actions may be taken as a positive sign that the pacts the EU is planning to conclude with a number of Eastern Partnership states in November in Vilnius, are near completion.  Yet they remind me clearly of the constraints  to EU’s  external governance which we outlined with Rilka Dragneva in our 2009 article  Constraining External Governance: Interdependence with Russia and the CIS as Limits to the EU’s Rule Transfer in the Ukraine. 

We argued that membership in the regional integration structures of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) presented no real obstacle for Ukraine’s integration with the EU through an advanced Association agreement. Yet further steps, such as deeper integration within Russia’s  Single Economic Space (including Customs Union) are incompatible with a deep free trade area with the EU which many expect will be equivalent to an internal market minus arrangement (Gstöhl 2008). A number of other studies have anticipated these potential incompatibilities as well (Emerson et al., 2006, Cremona, 2004). It is worth repeating however, our argument that the issue here is not simply about incompatible or rival trade regimes. Russia’s particular brand of foreign policy, as we have argued also in another recent piece, blends geopolitical, economic and foreign policy concerns and measures. Trade and energy policy are indelibly fused with Russia’s concept of influence in its near abroad and its wish to preserve also the symbolism of its central role in the region. Symbolic appeals to common Orthodox Christian legacy are often employed to supplement trade sanctions. EU’s trade and foreign policy regimes are much more fragmented and multi focal rather than centralized.  Even though the Economist quotes opinions that Russia has lost the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people,  I would consider the currently EU weak on the symbolism dimension, not least because of ‘enlargement fatigue’ or the member states’ inclination to look inwards instead of towards the outside in recent years. Yet the member states and institutions are aware of Russia’s aspirations and recent moves. The hope is that they will not underestimate the symbolic impact of a new agreement with Ukraine and the potential breakthrough it can bring to the EU’s ENP.