Europe’s two separate crises – the negotiation over the Greek economy and the conflict in Ukraine – have developed in parallel. But the recent visit of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Moscow seemed to bring the two crises together, with some fearing that the standoff between the Syriza-led Greek government and its creditors might see Greece drawn into Russia’s geopolitical orbit. While Tsipras did not get anything from Vladimir Putin that can dramatically alter the balance of power between Greece and its lenders, the Greek prime minister did manage to project an image of defiance against the common EU position on Russia. The visit and its aftermath are emblematic of the detrimental effect of eurozone politics on the EU’s image as a cohesive foreign policy actor.
Diversity of positions
Tsipras is not alone in Europe in reaching out to Putin. Despite the commonly agreed sanctions, it is no secret that EU member states differ in their preferences as to how to handle Russia. Many post-communist member states view Russia as a strategic threat. Others, especially in the Mediterranean, view Russia through an economic and commercial lens and downplay strategic considerations about Russia’s role in European security – the prime minister of Italy Matteo Renzi and the president of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiades have also met with Putin in recent months. In March, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo visited Moscow and publicly stated that sanctions benefit no one.
But the criticism of Tsipras’ trip by European politicians and parts of the press show that the politics of the euro crisis is aggravating pre-existing divisions within EU foreign policy. For example, Spain’s Garcia-Margallo may have spoken against sanctions while in Moscow, but castigated Tsipras for saying similar things himself. Such contradictions are understandable only in the context of eurozone crisis politics: the government in Madrid is under pressure from the Syriza-allied Spanish left-wing party, Podemos, in the run up to general elections later this year. By the same token, for Tsipras, this visit was mostly a way to boost his image domestically in the context of a protracted negotiation with Greece’s lenders.
The current sniping could be a sign of a more troublesome period to come. As many of the member states with a more sympathetic attitude towards Russia also implement austerity and are subject to strict budgetary controls by the EU (for example Greece or Italy), it is becoming more difficult to sustain commonly agreed foreign policies when these negatively affect their beleaguered economies. The debate over renewal of EU sanctions against Russia that expire in July could be acrimonious.
The EU faces multiple challenges on its southern and eastern flanks. It would be difficult to develop common policies toward sensitive issues like energy security and immigration from North Africa at the best of times. But the eurozone crisis makes it all the harder. The seemingly perpetual intergovernmental negotiations in the Eurogroup and the European Council reduce the time and energy that leaders can devote to these external challenges, while the close scrutiny of national publics and often populist or radical opposition parties reduces the space for compromise. Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski reflected the current climate when he stated in April that ‘the southern flank of the Union will not enjoy the understanding of the EU’s eastern flank on immigration, if it continues not to understand, or to refuse to understand, the eastern existential threats’.
The EU has traditionally managed divergent foreign policy preferences and crosscutting external pressures through careful negotiations in a spirit of compromise. The eurozone crisis, and specifically the split between eastern and southern members over the issue of austerity, is undermining these underlying political norms so crucial to EU foreign policy-making.