Jeroen Bult: Azov, Marrakesh and Champs Élysees

European Union flags are seen outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 14, 2018.


While most of the «old», western EU members states were following their soft security instincts and were preoccupied by the forthcoming Katowice (climate) and Marrakesh (migration) summits, the «new», eastern member states were, once again, unpleasantly reminded of the hard security tendencies in their neighbourhood. On 25 November, Russia fired upon and seized three Ukrainian vessels, in international waters, which were heading for the Azov Sea, and arrested the crew, thus entailing one of the most serious crises in the region since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. It appears that Russia immersed itself in yet another self-invented truth: «Azov» is sacred national property as well.

The greater part of the «new» EU members was totally shocked and called for immediate action by Brussels. Estonian Foreign Minister Mikser suggested imposing additional European sanctions on Russia, the Riigikogu passed a statement, in which it expressed its support for Ukraine i.e. Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Lithuanian President Grybauskaitė – who once labelled Russia «a terrorist state» – paid a visit to Kyiv on 7 December. «Lithuania stands firm by the brave Ukrainian people, increasing its steadfast support in helping to defend and resist the aggression», she wrote on Twitter.

Reactions at the other side of the continent were way more cautious. Dutch Foreign Minister Blok stressed that his country «fully supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine», and several political parties in The Hague are advocating stronger sanctions vis-à-vis Russia. However, two of them, the conservative-liberal VVD and the christian democratic CDA, both members of the ruling coalition, have already indicated that one crucial issue will definitively not be taken into consideration: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The official and semi-official arguments being that Nord Stream is a «commercial project» and that the Netherlands will inevitably become more dependent on the import of gas, now that it will gradually reduce the exploration of its own national sources, because of earthquakes in the northeast of the country. Yet it is a public secret that Nord Stream 2 shareholder Shell and other representatives of Big Business in the Netherlands, which has traditionally had close ties with the VVD, are no passionated proponents of sanctions against Russia.

A similar approach can be discerned in Germany. Foreign Minister Maas rejected the introduction of new sanctions: «From the German side, there will be no proposal.» Chancellor Merkel touched upon the Azov topic at the recent G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, during her bilateral encounter with President Putin, called for the release of the imprisoned Ukrainian seamen und das reicht. The combination of solid, interwoven German-Russian business interests – Merkel’s predecessor Schröder (Nord Stream, Rosneft) being their most notorious figurehead – a lingering sense of «World War II guilt» vis-à-vis Russia and the deeply-anchored convinction that Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik has yielded more tangible results, including national reunification in 1990, than reckless, hawkish crusades during the Cold War makes Germany even more cautious when dealing with Putin c.s.

Of course, scepticism towards Russia has grown in the Netherlands since the shoot-down of flight MH-17 in Eastern Ukraine, and the venomous dezinformatsiya campaigns following the tragedy. Like Germany, it has contributed to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battalion in Lithuania, aimed at reassuring the Baltic allies and deterring Russia, and it has finally increased its defence spending. And distrust towards the «Marrakesh Compact» is not an exclusively Eastern European phenomenon: it even caused a political earthquake in Belgium (while the Seimas, Lithuanian Parliament, gave its blessing to the document without much noise). Still, the soft and hard security «gap» between Western and Eastern Europe, the «best» way of dealing with Russia being the ultimate yardstick, has been a basic feature of the EU’s «Common» Foreign and Security Policy since 2004.

However, another, more recent development has not been conducive to the assertiveness of the CFSP, and the cohesion of the EU as such, either: national introversion. The rise of so-called populism, that bubbling, yet sometimes elusive

cocktail of public discontent about mass immigration, growing inequality in society, the slimming down of social security, the «elitist political caste» and, more in general, economic and cultural globalization, will force European politicians to focus more on national problems. French President Macron simply cannot afford to continue basking in his self-proclaimed role as Europe’s Savior – the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), who recently turned the Champs Élysees in Paris into a battlefield, have forced him to pay attention to the woes of La France périphérique. Macron desperately tried to make concessions (minimum wage, taxes) to the vests movement, if one can speak of a «movement» at all, but it is highly doubtful, whether these will assuage the underlying dissatisfaction.

France is not the only (leading) European country facing national political, economic and social turmoil. Even the EU’s traditional anchor of stability has let loose: Germany. Of course, one could argue that Germany is a different case, because the eastern part of the country has been fertile ground for extremist, militant parties, organizations and gangs since 1990. The main reason being the failure to bring about the once promised blühende Landschaften – the economically blossoming landscapes – in the greater part of the late GDR. But the aforementioned ingedrients of public discontent can be discerned in the whole of the country, much to the delight of the Alternative für Deutschland party. The AfD’s national breakthrough, during last year’s elections, resulted into the formation of yet another «GroKo» of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which is even more mirthless and inspirationless than its predecessors. Unless the party will fall apart, due to scandals and personal vendettas, or deter (potential) voters by crossing a filthy brown, neonazist line, the AfD is there to stay – and provoke.

The formation of a new government in Sweden, once an oasis of predictable, harmonious politics, has become an almost Herculean task. And what will be the outcome of Estonia’s parliamentary elections in March? A landslide victory of EKRE and a technocratic, humdrum GroKo of the Centre Party and the Reform Party? This could put a different perspective on Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ famous remark that he would like Estonia to become «just another boring Nordic country»: the «boring» days of politics in both Sweden and Estonia are over, it seems.

If national introversion will become a trend indeed, that could have serious implications for the CFSP – the cohesion of which already is rather fragile. Not to mention the prospect of ever more populist parties joining or dominating governments themselves. With 2019 in sight, Vladimir Putin has no cause for complaint.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in the Baltic States and Germany.