The EU introduced a series of sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine crisis, but divisions persist between EU member states over how to engage with its largest eastern neighbour. Drawing on a recent book, Marco Siddi writes that disagreements between EU member states over Russia stem not only from different national interests, but have their roots in national identity. However, despite these identity-based divisions, it is possible for EU governments to reach a united position if they avoid essentialising external actors as negative ‘Others’.

Donald Tusk at a European Council meeting in June 2017, Credit: European Council (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Numerous media analyses and policy commentators have tried to explain the crisis in EU-Russia relations through geopolitical frameworks that emphasise political and economic interests. Although arguably less sensationalist and thus less popular with the wider public, some recent scholarly works have provided a more nuanced analysis. For instance, they have shown that the Ukraine conflict was not a sudden shock for EU-Russia relations, but should rather be seen as the culmination of a long-term crisis. Following this argument, the current tensions between the EU and Russia are rooted in the long-term problem of fully including Russia in the politics and institutions of post-Cold War Europe.

My recently published book contributes to the emerging literature in this field by tracing the role of national identities and historical constructions of Russia in recent and current foreign policy discourse. On the one hand, I try to expose the deeper, long-term causes of the current crisis through a longue durée approach, which highlights how Russia has been constructed as one of Europe’s main antagonistic ‘Others’ since early modern history. On the other hand, acknowledging the internal diversity and complexity of the EU, I investigate the different national discourses and postures towards Russia in Germany, Poland and Finland.

Approximately ten years ago, then European Commissioner for trade Peter Mandelson argued that nothing divides EU member states more than Russia. The current European unity concerning the sanctions policy against Moscow has led many scholars to downplay or overlook the persistence of internal tensions within the EU. These tensions are not merely the result of different interests and assessments concerning the threats or economic opportunities emanating from Russia. They can be largely understood through the prism of national identity.

Despite the process of European integration, policy makers are predominantly embedded in national arenas and debates, which shape their cognitive processes and decision-making. National identity, meant as a set of collective cultural, historical and political discourses, is a particularly influential cognitive device. The awareness of national identity and historical constructions of Russia greatly enhances the understanding of today’s foreign policy discourses. A thorough knowledge of the dominant identity narratives over time in the countries under investigation is thus a fundamental prerequisite of this scholarly approach. The relevant, available academic literature is vast, and highlights how Russia has been conceptualised differently in European countries.

In Germany, historical images of Russia as a threatening enemy (which culminated in the Nazi war of annihilation against the Soviet Union in the 1940s) were eventually superseded by less antagonistic forms of othering, which allowed for political reconciliation and economic partnership. Conversely, Russia has remained a profoundly antagonistic Other in Polish identity discourse. Both in domestic political debates and in Polish official politics of memory, Russia tends to be portrayed as a threat. In Finland, two main historical narratives can be identified: one describing Russia as an important neighbour and commercial partner, and another one depicting it as a security or environmental challenge.

My analysis traces the link between these deep-rooted constructions of Russia and foreign policy discourses in selected case studies. For instance, the case study focusing on the Nord Stream pipeline project revealed a cacophony of conflicting European narratives, which could largely be explained through different conceptualisations of Russia in national identities. From a German perspective, energy cooperation with Moscow was a good thing, as it contributed to Russia’s integration in the European economy – and was thus consistent with the cooperative Ostpolitik thinking that has shaped Berlin’s policy since the late 1960s.

By contrast, Polish policy makers saw energy dependence on Russia as a threat, exposing the country to Russian influence and imperialism. From a Polish perspective, German-Russian energy cooperation evoked memories of the Nazi-Soviet partitioning of Eastern Europe – a view that can hardly be understood without reference to Poland’s national identity. On the other hand, Finnish official discourses conceived energy cooperation with Russia as an economic opportunity. At the same time, they voiced concerns about the ecological implications of the Nord Stream project.

Are, then, European discourses on Russia bound to differ because of conflicting identity constructions and historical perceptions? As my analysis of evolving national discourses in the Georgian and Ukraine crises showed, this is not a foregone conclusion. National identity is a complex and malleable construct that allows for competing discourses and, over time, the emergence of new ones. In this regard, much depends on the agency of national leaders. Thanks to their institutional position and media access, they have the discursive power to steer the main national debates and mould identity narratives.

Hence, after 2007, following the election of a government headed by Donald Tusk in Poland, Polish foreign policy narratives concerning Russia became more moderate and became more similar to German and Finnish discourses. This happened thanks to Tusk’s decision to downplay antagonistic identity narratives and pursue instead a policy of rapprochement. Similarly, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, national discourses converged towards the condemnation of Moscow’s use of force and the rejection of a military solution to the crisis. In Germany and Finland, discourses emphasising peace and multilateralism prevailed over conceptualisations of Russia as an economic partner, paving the way for the EU’s policy of sanctions.

Nevertheless, as a solution to the Ukraine crisis is not in sight, and new international challenges have emerged (ranging from terrorism to economic crisis and migration), domestic political debates have evolved and differences in national discourses on Russia have reappeared, once again reflecting different conceptualisations of the country. German policy makers continue to consider political dialogue and energy cooperation as a useful way of engaging Russia. On the other hand, the Ukraine crisis has reawakened deep-rooted Polish fears of Russia. The rise to power of a conservative and nationalist government in Warsaw has mainstreamed once again historic narratives portraying Russia – and Germany – as Poland’s foes.

Antagonistic othering has long been a divisive factor in European politics, both among EU member states and in relations with Russia. The persistence of dividing narratives largely depends on the agency of political leaders, and whether they prioritise narrow nationalistic interests over a more inclusive discourse. As my book argues, the boundaries between Self and Other are fluid, and positive interaction can occur. Forward-looking politicians should encourage this interaction and avoid essentialising external actors as negative Others.

This article draws on the author’s recent book, National Identities and Foreign Policy in the European Union: The Russia Policy of Germany, Poland and Finland (ECPR Press, 2017)

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Marco Siddi – Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Marco Siddi is a Senior Research Fellow in the European Union Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

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