Brussels officials besieged by the Eurosceptic press may be relieved to discover that for the first time they have a natural ally: Russian 'Eurocrats'. While currently more of a club than an aspiring federal government, there are already not far from a thousand Moscow-based 'Eurocrats' beavering away at what some suggest could be the next regional powerhouse: the Eurasian Economic Commission.
The commission is growing at an "impressive" speed, according to Michael Pulch, head of division for Russia at the European External Action Service, the European Union's diplomatic arm. "They have a new building and there are already 800 people working on Eurasia issues," he told a seminar organised by the EU-Russia Centre, a think-tank. Intrigued, the Russian newspapers have begun to run stories on their no doubt over-the-top salaries and holiday entitlements. Responsibility for trade, agriculture and related phytosanitary rules for the three members of the would-be EU of the east – Russia, Belorussia and Kazakhstan – has already been handed to these Eurasian bureaucrats, taking Brussels somewhat by surprise. "We have a mandate to negotiate with Russia, not the Eurasian commission," Pulch told the seminar, held at the Brussels Press Club. Russian Eurocrats will soon be devising policy in the field of competition, energy and investment, he predicted.
While officially supportive of all regional integration processes around the world, the EU is clearly wary of this supranational upstart. Europe fears it may in reality be nothing more than a facade for the renaissance of the Russian empire. After all, around 85 per cent of staff at the Moscow headquarters are Russian. And Russia represents 90 per cent of the bloc's gross domestic product. Given the economic insignificance of the other two members, the Eurasian community was something of a "horse-rabbit stew", EU-Russia Centre adviser Marco Franco told the seminar. A horse-rabbit stew has a hint of rabbit, but tastes overwhelmingly of horse, Franco explained. In his former role as EU ambassador to Russia, Franco asked his bosses for instructions on how to handle the Eurasian commission. He was told, he revealed, "to leave it well alone".
"This is the only case of the EU being suspicious of economic integration," said Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, senior fellow at Carnagie Europe, another think-tank. "The west is very negative," she said. The Eurasian commission might reflect Russia's desire to be treated as an equal by the EU, she suggested, though Russian officials deny this theory. The alleged benefits of the existing customs union between the three states were not convincing, the seminar heard. Kazakhstan was the "clear loser", while Belorussia was probably in search of much needed political legitimacy and, even more importantly, cash. Even for Russia, the economic justification is not obvious – studies claim the Eurasian customs union has until today resulted in economic contraction, not growth. Russian public opinion was against subsidising new members, said Shumylo-Tapiola.
Is the fledgling Eurasian community a political alliance rather than an economic one? There were suggestions members might be coming together out of shared fear of China. Alternatively, it could be a Russian plan to counter the EU's eastern partnership programme, a policy considered by Moscow to be "an incursion into the Russian zone of influence". Either way, the proof of the pudding was likely to be Ukraine, panellists agreed. Would Ukraine be asked, or obliged, to join the Eurasian community? "All approaches must be voluntary," said Pulch. There have until now be no signs of coercion by Moscow, Shumylo-Tapiola said. A similar question mark hangs over Moldova's future.
The EU suspects that the nascent Eurasian community is a reborn Soviet empire in disguise. Until these suspicions are allayed, calls for a wider Eurasian alliance running from the Atlantic to Vladivostok are likely to remain 'Putin's dream', as the seminar was entitled. If they care to pop over, Eurasian commission officials are however likely to get a warm welcome in Brussels from their supranational counterparts. When talks on agriculture or energy get bogged down by geo-political grandstanding, they can always compare pension plans.
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