In Europe’s conversation about Russia, “business as usual” has become a loaded term. “We must not go back to business as usual,” warn eastern European politicians. “We are not back to business as usual,” affirm officials in Brussels. “It’s not business as usual,” echo even businesspeople, who probably rather wish it was. Even the European Parliament recently approved a report that stated: “the EU cannot envisage a gradual return to ‘business as usual’ until Russia … restores the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
In reality, there is no need to reiterate the mantra. The European Union and Russia cannot go back to the old model of their relationship. The path is blocked: both sides’ expectations, ambitions, fears, hopes, and the sense of what is possible have shifted so as to close it. The way ahead can only go through reconceptualisation of the relationship, but this is bound to be a long journey.
The EU and Russia are still digesting the story of the past 25 years, which tends to lead to recriminations and backward- rather than forward-looking policy discussions. But, while understanding the past remains important, it can offer only limited clues about the future, which will offer a profoundly different setting. In addition, for the time being, the EU and Russia are both moving targets, going through a complicated internal evolution, the destination of which remains unknown. Finally, the differences between the EU and Russia are first and foremost of a deeply philosophical, normative kind, and this means that they cannot really be settled in isolation, bilaterally – because only the direction of history and the choices of other powers can validate or disprove their different claims and show who is “on the right side of history”. The new relationship needs to be anchored in a wider world order; any settlement outside that is bound to be of a limited and provisional nature. But the world is, alas, in flux itself, and fails to provide a framing order. Thus, the journey to a new model of relationship will be long and complicated, but it is a mountain that needs to be climbed.