The third “European Meridian, XXI” in Brussels: Digitization and the Russia-EU future

In the 21st year of the 21st century, at 21, Street Meridien in Brussels, the focus was on the main challenge facing humanity over the past year and a half, i.e. the coronavirus pandemic, the economic, political and social crises it causes, as well as the strategies for possible joint actions by Russia and the EU to overcome them.

On May 26, Brussels hosted the third international expert Forum “European Meridian, XXI”, this time in an online format. According to tradition, its organizers were the Russian House in Brussels, located at 21, Street Meridien, the Institute of Europe - Russian Academy of Sciences and the magazine "Russia in Global Affairs" with the support of the Russian Embassy in Belgium and the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union, in collaboration with the main Russian and European expert centers: the Russian International Affairs Council, the Egmont Institute (Belgium), the College of Europe (Belgium), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the Foundation for Science and Politics (FRG), the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and Brussels School of Governance.

Since 2019, the Forum has been organized annually and brings together recognized experts in international affairs and Russian-European relations.

In 2021, the theme of the Forum was defined as “The Global Economic Coronavirus Crisis - Political and Social Implications” and consisted of two sessions:

“Post-pandemic. Digitization of social relations and international social initiatives ”

● "Exiting the pandemic: New scenarios for the development of relations between Russia and Europe"

Vera Bunina, head of the Russian House in Brussels, expressed confidence "that the European Meridian is the only real platform in Brussels for an informal expert dialogue between interested specialists from Russia and the European Union”. “Taking place in the European capital for the third time, the Forum has in fact proved that the pandemic is not an obstacle to international cooperation,” she stressed in an interview with TASS.

During the opening, Alexandre TOKOVININ, the Russian Ambassador to Belgium, emphasized in a video message that the key word characterizing the current stage of development is “changes”. The recent difficult events that we have experienced in recent months due to COVID-19 will become a catalyst for accelerating change, which will lead to increased competition, yet "Russia is in favor of building it on a solid basis of international law, on the basis of mutual respect and mutual consideration of interests”. Tokovinin also hoped that the Forum will help the community of experts, within the framework of international cooperation, to grasp new, unusual and pivotal ideas for overcoming the crisis and to take into account those involved in the decision-making process.

During the online discussion, Dmitry POLIKANOV, deputy head of Rossotrudnichestvo, remarked that there is currently a crisis in relations between Russia and Europe: “Russia has provided a lot of international aid to other states, including European countries. Moreover, the country continues to offer assistance in vaccination. However, this aid is rejected and under these conditions the role of international humanitarian cooperation and organizations such as Rossotrudnichestvo grows. It is necessary to maintain normal personal contacts and exchange opinions. Forums like today's contribute to this and are very important."

Polikanov also added that there is great interest today in what Rossotrudnichestvo is doing: “We are trying to attract a new audience and show the whole world that Russia is a peaceful state that supports international cooperation and a multipolar world. We organize events for different groups and strengthen our work with our compatriots. We also focus on the interests of the younger generation, as we understand that the future is in their hands. It is important to show Russia as a modern state, to focus not only on history, but also on current development (vaccination, social development)."

The main speaker of the plenary session was Alexey GROMYKO, Russian historian and political scientist, doctor of political science, director of the Institute of Europe - Russian Academy of Sciences and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He confirmed the Ambassador's opinion that “the pandemic has become a catalyst and a transition mechanism”. Many issues that arose before the pandemic, such as the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, have not been resolved, but have only worsened. In 2020, there were two economic shocks. As demand and consumption fell, many funds were used to alleviate the consequences of the crisis, but at the same time, public debt increased, financial bubbles emerged, and global and national economies were restructured. Gromyko also noticed the negative consequences of the pandemic, which affect the balance of security and civil liberties, various restrictions related to freedom of assembly and movement, deterioration in living standards, growing social inequalities, as well as unemployment and poverty and declining income. What will the new hierarchy of countries look like? Russia must continue to be involved in international affairs, but it must also continue to rely on its own decisions, without becoming hostage to the narrative of American and Chinese bipolar rhetoric. Gromyko expressed hope that in the framework of the Forum, experts can discuss how to deal with the problems and "make the world a safer place".

Вторым ключевым спикером с европейской стороны стала депутат Европейского парламента из Ирландии, член группы Европейских объединенных левых Клэр ДЕЙЛИ, она подчеркнула, что отношения Европы и России важны как никогда во время коронакризиса, на первый план должны выходить международная солидарность и координация. К сожалению, отношения ухудшаются, позиция ЕС к России далека от реальности и напоминает «коллективную иррациональность». Многие решения принимаются без изучения фактов, что в дальнейшем приводит к эскалации конфликта, обострению взаимных страхов и риторике эпохи Холодной войны.

The second European key speaker was Clare DALY, member of the European Parliament from Ireland, member of the Left in the European Parliament. She stressed that relations between Europe and Russia are more important than ever during the coronavirus crisis and that international solidarity and coordination should come to the fore. Unfortunately, relations are deteriorating, the EU's position vis-à-vis Russia is far from reality and looks like "collective irrationality". Many decisions are made without studying the facts, leading to further escalation of conflict, heightened mutual fears and rhetoric of the Cold War era. She humorously expressed the hypothesis that after participating in this event, she will most likely be included in the dossier on the investigation into Russian interference in EU internal affairs. Only those interested in increasing the defense budget, establishing barriers to international trade and blocking Sputnik V's entry into the European market will benefit from the outbreak of a conflict with Russia. Clare Daly also stressed the importance of contacts at parliamentary level, but this dialogue is lacking. Daly said that EU citizens do not hate Russia and that events such as this forum helps overcome barriers and narratives of phobias. She advocates building relationships based on facts, the primacy of international law, the development of parliamentary and cultural exchanges and the erasure of stereotypes.

The moderator of the first session on the digitization of social relations was Fyodor Lukyanov, one of the leading Russian political scientists, professor-researcher at the Higher School of Economics, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs”, host of the “International Review” program on the Russia24 channel, and chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. He presented expectations of the last Forum on the online format of the Forum this year. However, the pandemic dragged on. Speaking of the inevitability of digitization and its intensification due to a pandemic, he recalled the concept of George Orwell, described in the book "1984", expressing the ideology that will lead to totalitarianism, and the concept of Aldous Huxley, described in the novel "Brave New World", that the road to totalitarianism is through technology, total optimization and comfort. According to Lukyanov, Orwell's dangerous prediction of total control is now being implemented, but through Huxley's prism of the influence of technology. The moderator presented the experts the matter of the phenomenon and the erosion in the modern world of the relationship between freedoms and non-freedoms, democracies and autocracies, as well as the question of the fragmentation of the modern world or global cooperation.

Gianluca SGUEO, a researcher at the Brussels School of Governance, worked for several years in the European Parliamentary Research Service and has written numerous works on the digitization of government processes. He introduced the concept of digital government and recalled that due to the digitization of commercial spaces, modern society is so accustomed to fast and affordable internet services that they expect the same quick and easy solutions from the state, even to complex problems. Yet the state needs a consensus of the members and an in-depth study of the matter to present the result, and such "slowness" leads to tensions between the state and society. In addition, with fast and easy digital access to information, the quality of information decreases, which also becomes dangerous. Access to data becomes a weapon in the hands of states.

Maxim SUCHKOV, director of the Center for Advanced American Studies at MGIMO spoke about the different levels of privacy, which depend on Internet access and participation in social networks. He also reiterated the view of the struggle for ownership of own technology platforms and databases, as well as the view of digital colonialism and the dependence of countries that cannot develop their own digital services.

Thierry MONFORTI, director of academic services and director of admissions at the College of Europe in Bruges, spoke about the College during the pandemic. He recalled that it is a “comprehensive educational institution” in the sense that students study and live on campus. Of course, the College had to adapt to the new conditions. A key element was the adoption of new measures and the development of systems to improve the protection of personal data of students and teachers. He also stressed the importance of maintaining a balance of digital control over personal and professional life and of the flow of information on personal data.

Stanislav TKACHENKO, professor at the Department of European Studies (Saint Petersburg State University), presented the concept of five value groups in cyberspace and information and communication technologies: cyber-libertarians, liberal social engineers, moderates, conservative moralists and supporters of traditional implantation. Yet after the pandemic, the last two groups lost their relevance. The professor drew attention to the consistency of the Japanese 5.0 concept that development is seen not only as an increase in the country's GDP, but above all as an improvement in the quality of life of the people. The Japanese with a sufficient degree of development propose to integrate digitization, artificial intelligence and big data in order to improve people's lives. Tkachenko also raised the issue of equal access to education. He referred to António Guterres, the UN secretary general, who said that the pandemic has led to the emergence of a "catastrophic generation", 1.5 billion young people have been affected by distance education or lack of education. Finally, he highlighted the benefits of collaboration within the framework of David Mitrany's concept of functionalism. Within the framework of the metaphor of a ruined world proposed by the Valdai Club, one must be prepared for the fact that digitization will be difficult, but such a technocratic dialogue in the relations between Russia and the EU could open up new topics for cooperation.

The panelists also discussed the future of youth and the metaphor of the “catastrophic generation”. They came to the conclusion that the students have changed a lot during the year of online study, the quality of knowledge is dropping sharply.

The second session "Exiting the pandemic: New scenarios for the development of relations between Russia and Europe" was moderated by Steven BLOCKMANS, research director at the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), editor-in-chief of the European Foreign Affairs Review and member of the EU-Russia Experts Network (EUREN). In one of his comments, he stressed that the pandemic is not a "black swan" but a "gray rhino" for relations between Russia and the EU. The experts examined various scenarios for the future and assessed the potential to follow the most positive of them, which contributes to the dialogue between Russia and European countries.

A joint EUREN report "Alternative scenarios for the development of EU-Russia relations in 2030" was presented during the session. Ivan TIMOFEEV presented the “collective intelligence product” of Russian and European experts and spoke about a five-year marathon of comprehensive expert meetings and scenario modeling to prepare reports and brainstorms in three areas : security, economy and common neighborhood. Foreign policy, the economy, the climate and the green agenda were also assessed. Timofeev pointed out that the coronavirus has a significant impact on many issues. The document developed the following scenarios: “Cold partnership”, “Immersion in anarchy”, “On the brink of war”, “Community of values”.

Experts agreed that the scenarios did not foresee the future, but rather guide towards which future we want to come to. The “Cold partnership” scenario was chosen as the most likely scenario.

Olga POTEMKINA, head of the research department on European integration at the Institute of Europe - Russian Academy of Sciences, confirmed her support for the first scenario, although she raised a number of matters about the implementation of reforms in Russia and the EU, and also stressed the importance, if not respect, then understanding the ongoing processes. “Black swans” flock to discuss partnerships, leading to rash political decisions with dire consequences. The subject of the confrontation is the area of ​​the Eastern partnership, Central Asia and the Middle East. The pandemic has offered an opportunity for cooperation in a global context, for example in the fight against the coronavirus in Asia, the Balkans and Africa. Now on the agenda is the development of a procedure for mutual recognition of certificates and tests of future travelers to avoid the emergence of a new iron curtain. Potemkina quoted Macron, the French president, as saying that the policy of sanctions against Russia is not working. Selective cooperation could be implemented on the international scene, as conflict mediators, as well as in the health sector.

Alexei MUKHIN, director general of the Political Information Center, stressed that the confrontation in the relations between Russia and the EU is not as bad as a false friendship.

To overcome the crisis, he proposed to develop international trade and the security space.

Kirill LOGVINOV, deputy of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union, stressed that the conflict in relations between Russia and the EU did not arise in 2014, but long before, in 2011. The problem of the asymmetry of mutual expectations is evident, which has caused a distorted perception of intentions, which subsequently led to a critical decline in confidence in relations between Russia and the EU. It is important to bring back a culture of mutual respect.

Experts discussed various proposals to improve relations between Russia and the EU, special attention was paid to the post-Soviet region, the Eastern partnership countries.

At the end of the Forum, Vera BUNINA, director of the Russian House in Brussels, expressed special gratitude to the participants who broached difficult subjects. Vera Georgievna expressed hope that subsequent expert discussions would lead to a "warm partnership" between Russia and the EU, and that the theme of the next Forum could be the integration of EU and EAEU integrations.