The European Union Can Barely Hold Itself Together—and Putin Knows It | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the opening ceremony of newly built first Mercedes-Benz plant in Russia, at Yesipovo Industrial Park, 40 km. northwest of Moscow on April 3, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Brexit and similar populist movements in Europe have prompted Brussels to question itself and its policies. Whatever happens to these insurgencies, there must be a wholesale re-examination of how the EU treats states and economies dependent on it —both inside and outside its borders.

Since the founding of the European Union, it has almost by default become associated with international solidarity, open trade, and rights for citizens. This is a natural consequence of any union between countries of varying income levels and geopolitical significance, and was clear from the founding of the EU in 1993: Germany and Italy, for example, are very different in terms of their economies, societies and global stature.

These principles—and the implicit moral standing that comes with them—were further expanded when the "Outer Seven" countries (including Portugal) joined the EU and even further when Spain and Greece—Mediterranean countries with recent histories of military dictatorship and economic upheaval—joined the union in the 80's.

The EU's reputation for freedom, rights and democracy was cemented when, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall, it rushed to embrace former Eastern bloc states. This was an act of either huge ambition, compassion, or both, depending on one's perspective.

But most recent expansions of the union may have led the EU down the path of all of history's fallen empires: facing economic and political difficulties "at home" (Germany, France, Britain) whilst over-extending its expansionism on the "frontiers" (Balkans and Central Europe.)

Seeking to transform former Eastern bloc communist command economies into modern, 21st century European markets in a few short years has forced the EU to dilute its standards, and compromise its policies—even as some of its newest members are sometimes in open conflict.

In Croatia, for example, the EU has had to look the other way as former Prime Minister Sanader was put on trial for corruption, accused of receiving millions in bribes from Hungarian state-owned energy company MOL. Despite a complete lack of substantive evidence, the two EU states have continued to spar in what many observers see as a Kremlin powerplay to control EU energy (MOL's competitors in Croatia are almost all Russian.)

EU expansionism is one of the most oft cited reasons for Kremlin's interference in European politics. From the Russian perspective, EU growth has been tolerated only on the basis of (implicit or explicit) guarantees that it would not progress too far eastwards and encroach on what Kremlin considers Russian territory. The Kremlin feels that this red line was blatantly violated in the case of Ukraine.

The root of the problem for the EU may simply be that it is pursuing outdated policies. Much of the vision for EU expansion was formulated while the president of Russia was Boris Yeltsin: a passive, placable man preoccupied with propping up his country's economy and merely holding on to power at home.

With an ever-more confident Putin at the helm, Russia is less forgiving of what it perceives as EU excesses—and populations in many EU accession states are ready to look for an alternative. After years of the EU offering them higher prices at home and limited opportunities in unskilled labour abroad, they are increasingly ready to look eastwards. This is to say nothing of the historical, cultural and even linguistic affinity between many of the EU's newest members and Russia. Brussels and its international "United Colours of Benetton" aesthetic is finding it difficult to compete.

It appears that Russia can sense Europe's weakness. It first acted militarily with the annexation of Crimea, a territorial change to Ukraine that makes its accession to the EU all but impossible (it is unlikely that Brussels would want to share a border with a Russian occupation.)

Putin also acted economically, with a particular focus on energy security - not only through the murky attacks on energy company MOL (which beat Russian competitors to the Croatian market) but also through the Nordstream 2 project, which will increase European energy dependence on Moscow.

In recent years we have entered the third stage: political interference. Through ideological and sometimes financial support for Europe's populist insurgent movements such as the AfD in Germany, Brexit in the UK, and the Yellow Vests in France, Putin is forcing Brussels to look inwards rather than outwards.

If the EU wants to survive this, it must work to regain the moral high ground, and show its citizens what it stands for, and why they should support it. Its trade policies are a good place to start: Brussels' Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), for example, means that rogue states like Myanmar have duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market.

Too many EU policies seem to defy logic or even apprehension, like the ban on palm oil imports (ostensibly for environmental reasons,) when alternatives such as soybean and rapeseed are even more catastrophic in terms of deforestation.

There are many such issues that make one wonder what exactly is going on in Brussels. Unless the EU can get its act together fast, more and more of its half a billion citizens will start asking the same difficult questions.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics, and was a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​