Author: Hanne Van De Ven
Brussels, november 17 - Forty years ago, when an ironncurtain divided the world, the USA, Canada and the countries ofnWestern Europe, and the states of the Communist bloc, signed the Helsinki Act. This Act was intended to improve the relations in thendialogue of economic cooperation, human rights and security. As opposed to the expectations, Europe currently faces a seriousndivision in East and West again since Russia annexed Crimea. For this reason, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group of the European Parliament discussed a revision for the Helsinki Act during a conference on 17 November in Brussels.
Since the establishment of the HelsinkinAct, the world has globalized increasingly through developments inninternet and technology. As a result, countries have become more involved with each other, particularly in trade. While the EuropeannUnion (EU) supports trade by opening the borders between the Member States of the Schengen zone, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia andnKyrgyzstan established the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 for similar purposes.
In relation to the revision of the Helsinki Act, one could therefore ask what the potentials of economic cooperation would be between the EU and the EEU. This question was the first topic of discussion during the S&D conference. The opinions were divided. Marian Lupu, chairman of the Democratic Partynof Moldova, stated that Moldova would be in favour of a dialogue onncollaboration between the EU and EEU and proposed her country to have a position in the middle of both Unions. It is a comprehensible point of view, as Moldova has been internally divided in a frozen conflictnsince 1990. In the majority of country rules the pro-Europeannattitude, however on the Ukrainian border lies the self-proclaimed independent and pro-Russian province of Transnistria.
Michael Emerson of the Centre forEuropean Policy Studies in Brussels, on the other hand, did not seen the future as bright as Lupu. He stated that according to Russian economists, cooperation with the EU could exists, but then all advantages would be on the EU side. Therefore the possibilities of a free limit area are limited. His statement was deemed faulty by Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the EU, who expressed that the EU and EEU are already economic partners. Chizhov however disregarded the current sanctions that have been placed between the EU and Russia and was unable to conceptualize how the EU and EEUncould enter into further cooperation on an economic level. With regard to his position, one might question if Russia is really interested in collaborating with the EU on an economic level.
On the matter of human rights, Russianseemed more open to collaboration though. During the second debate of the conference, Mikhail Fedotov, advisor to the Russian presidentnVladimir Putin and chairman of the Russian presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, showed support for the renewal of the Helsinki Act. He stated that the Act should be enriched with othernhuman rights and gave the right to peace as an example. The right to peace would justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as they claim that their actions have been purely to protect the ethnic Russian citizens from the pro-Ukrainian side. Besides that he expressed the need fornan equal approach by saying: “We cannot be a teacher towards eachnother, but we can be peers.” This position derives from the fact that the EU has been a normative power on amongst others the value of human rights. In Russia this has been perceived as arrogant and hypocritical, because while the EU is telling other countries how tongovern, the member states are facing problems on human rights themselves.
Peter Niedermüller, a S&D membernfrom Hungary, confirmed Fedotov’s point by sharing that he is not very optimistic about Central and Eastern Europe. Some governments in this region go systematically against human rights, rule of law and democracy. He therefore argued that the problem of the Helsinki Act is that it positions Russia on side and the EU on the other, while they should not be looking at each other with fear.
Especially since the Paris attacks on 13 November, a dialogue on the division in Europe between Russia and the EU seems more important than ever. In the third panel discussion the question was raised how the EU and Russia’s common responsibility for Europe’s security should be restored. Again the opinions were divided. Alexey Gromyko, director of the Institute of nEurope of the Russian Academy of Sciences, claimed that the common responsibility for a European security could not be restored because there never was one. He therefore proposed a dialogue for an European security system. However, the EU has to keep in mind that Russia wants to ensure stability on its doorstep. This means, Russia would not accept the EU to interfere with Russia’s neighbouring countries, as what had happened in Ukraine. Manana Kobakhidze, first Deputy Chair of Parliament of Georgia, responded to that by saying that the choice to go into agreement with the EU does not mean a movement against Russia. She also pleaded for the strengthening of the OSCE in order for it to be capable of on the field investigations, as currently 20% of Georgia’s territory is under occupation of Russia.
Russia’s illiberal position towards the Ukraine and Georgia’s sovereignty, makes it difficult for thenEU to become partners. In spite of that, one might ask if there is another choice with regards to Syria. The area of possibility in security lies beyond Europe. Hannes Swoboda, President of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna argued that perhaps after collaborating in Syria, trust can be regained. Karsten Voigt of the German Council on Foreign Relations, is sceptical and contends that in order for a common security system within Europe, the EU needs to have a deep conviction that Russia will not change boundaries by force.
Nevertheless, the common challenges are bigger than the differences between the EU and Russia. Therefore, some say the EU has no other choice than to cooperate with Russia against terrorism. Although this will put the value of human rights onto hold, one could argue that through cooperation a better understanding will be established. Perhaps this will even help to develop the human rights situation on both sides, EU and Russia.