The Social Costs of the EU-Russia Split

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

There is a big discussion about the high costs that EU Member States and Russia are going to pay as the result of the current waves of sanctions and countermeasures related to the Ukrainian crisis. Currently, the EU exports to Russia € 140 billion, conversely Russia exports to the EU around €180 billion. It is difficult to predict the precise amount of trade that will be lost but it is clear that sanctions on one side, and announce plan for import substitutions on the other will definitely damage the economic intercourse between the two partners.

What has been much less discussed are the social costs attached to the current crisis. They do not occupy the front pages of the newspapers, they are less apparent, but, I would argue, more profound and persistent. And, as a consequence, definitely more worrying.

Whether Russia is part of Europe is a long-standing diatribe both within the EU and in Russia. What I would like to stress in this circumstance is that the historical ties among the two counterparts are very strong, that cultural exchanges have been very intense, and that Christianity provides a common background between the two.

During the Cold war, an artificial political divide was created, which generated a very real social divide made of reciprocal ignorance, suspicion, and even fear. There was almost no contact between anyone on the one side with any other one on the other side: Very little business, few scientific exchanges, no tourism.

This almost-a-century-long interruption has been slowly and cautiously healed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall through a gradual process of rapprochement. On both sides there has been a clear understanding that the relation between them was going to produce a positive outcome, a win-win situation.

The economic integration grew steadily to reach the figures mentioned above and to include shared membership of the World Trade Organization. Political dialogue developed from common membership in the Council of Europe and up to the point of reaching the stage of a strategic partnership between the European Union and Russia. Also in the military side there have been significant steps with the creation of the Russia-NATO council.

Underpinning all of these, there has been an intense wave of social “rediscovery” and getting together. From business travels, to tourism, from student exchanges to cultural cross-fertilization, the instances and paths of re-encounter have been varied. Trust, friendship and at time even love blossomed.

This encounter is however seriously endangered by the current crisis in Ukraine. Business is rapidly decreasing. Tourism is discouraged. Cultural and scientific exchange will probably be soon affected too.

A new specter of ignorance, suspicion, and fear is quickly spreading throughout the European Union and Russia.

Politicians bear a heavy responsibility for this, together with media actors that are considerably contributing to a verbal escalation that depicts the other as mistrustful and threatening. All of this contributes to accelerate a process of social distancing between the European and Russian people with potential long term costs. In other words, governmental politics and diplomatic bargaining is currently being detrimental to societal relations.

The conflict in Ukraine is dramatic. It is provoking a huge prize in terms of human lives and suffering. It also undoubtedly impinges on significant geo-political strategic interests.

And yet, what I claim is that the importance of the EU-Russia relation is larger and higher of the Ukrainian crisis. It is not only a matter of economic growth or military security, it is a matter of reciprocal constitutive identity. The identity of the EU is profoundly influenced by Russia, as well as Russia identity is deeply influenced by the European Member States.

Beyond all the other types of costs, building up a new wall between the EU and Russia would severely damage the sense of the self of the citizens on both parts. They would miss the chance of knowing each other, they would miss the chance of trusting each other: they would be condemned to fear each other for quite some time in the future.