Guess what panel was the largest at a major conference on European studies held in Passau, Germany? Quite tellingly, it was on EU–China relations. As Fraser Cameron, the director of a UK-based EU-Russia Centre, put it, the real strategic partnership is developing between Germany and China.
At the Passau conference, next to China, it was Russia that the EU is concerned about. But these two aspects raise fundamental problems. How should the EU’s policy toward countries with no demand for a normative agenda look like? How can the Europe-driven ideal of the universality of the democracy agenda be put into practice? (Actually, there is a human rights dialogue between Moscow and Brussels, but is anybody aware of its contents and outcomes?)
These are related questions seem to be especially acute against the background of increasing concerns about democracy within the EU itself. Take the case of democratic degradation in Hungary. A colleague of mine from Budapest confessed that Viktor Orban is “even worse than Putin” in his dismissal of democratic procedures.
My general impression is that European studies are so far unable to give proper answers to a plethora of political questions that Europe faces both domestically and externally. New academic journals grow in numbers, but their proliferation only devalues the explanatory power of scholarly discourses. Europe analysts gathered in Passau basically revolved their deliberations around rather general and already well-debated concepts (e.g., securitization, identity construction, modernity, security communities, etc.) This vocabulary could be instrumental in reacting to new developments on the ground, but whether they propose new answers remains unclear.
What the conference in Passau made clear is a shift from almost universal obsession with the “normative power” mantra to a set of more realist interpretations of EU’s policies in its neighborhood. It becomes nowadays a mainstream to claim that the EU often pursues a policy of double standards and seems to be more interested in promoting stability than democracy.
Perhaps, European scholars – particularly those sharing ideational and constructivist premises – have to be more critical and ask themselves: Do we not exaggerate the EU’s normative power? Do we not overrate the importance of external (in particular, East European) perceptions for the construction of EU’s own identity?
Russia remains an object of debate as well. On the one hand, optimists deem that there is some degree of compatibility between Russia and the EU – at least, in their policies toward neighboring countries. They think that Russia has something to offer to the EU apart from energy supplies, and common norms don’t look too utopian. Pessimists, on the other hand, argue that Russia is losing its influence in its “near abroad” exactly because it dismiss normative policies. In this vein, establishing a non-democracy is not the best way to secure control over countries like Tajikistan. Apparently, in this perennial debate, the process seems to be more important than results.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.