For Greater Europe We Must Embrace People-To-People Cooperation

04/26/2015 06:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

We can only watch with sadness the effects of the last few years brought on by confrontation. In 2003, as ministers of foreign affairs, we were at the forefront of the common initiatives between Germany, France and Russia to create a new spirit of dialogue and understanding. We saw the reunification of the European continent after 2004 as a chance to develop new and stronger ties between Europe and Russia because of their shared histories, cultures and needs. Let's be clear: Hopes are now shattered.

The crisis in Ukraine is a common challenge for Russia and Europe because we see the terrible effects of warfare in Europe again, with over 5,000 victims in Ukraine already. It is a common challenge because there are many risks to see a failing state in the middle of Europe -- one in need of financial aid beyond reach either of Russia or of Europe. We need to keep on the track of diplomacy, however hard and however frustrating it can be. We must continue with the 'Normandy format'. We must continue to work on a day-to-day basis on the Minsk II agreements. But we also need to be conscious of one truth: There will be no fast solution in Ukraine.

This is all the more dramatic as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has raised many questions not only about the fate of the Ukrainian state, but also about the future of international cooperation mechanisms in the Euro-Atlantic space.

In the security domain, the Russia-NATO dialogue about a common security space has been stalled. Instead, NATO announced plans to deploy new military infrastructure in Central Europe. Russia, in turn, proceeded with a large-scale rearmament program.

The trade and investment between Russia and EU that looked so dynamic and promising only two years ago are clearly running out of steam. The negative impact of an unfortunate "war of sanctions" between Moscow and Brussels is not limited to specific businesses on both sides. It also undermines mutual trust, curtails long-term development projects, and casts a shadow over the bold vision of a common market stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

The information media confrontation between the East and the West has reached an unprecedented scale. "Experts" on both sides make full use of the old Cold War rhetoric. Mutual suspicions, misperceptions and even outright lies become a common feature of our life, like it was 30 or 40 years ago. There is the will among some to use sanctions as a tool for regime change, repeating again the mistakes of the past and the misconceptions of the national feelings.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that both in Russia and in Europe, there is now talk about the second Cold War. The Greater Europe project, which many politicians, experts and opinion makers from many European countries have been trying to promote since mid-1980s, now looks like a fantasy completely detached from reality. Neither Russia nor Europe can afford a new "Cold War."

Indeed, the situation in Europe today does give too many arguments to pessimists. The future of Greater Europe is unclear and murky, to say the least. The crisis in Ukraine has almost completely erased this vision from agendas of politicians and analysts in the East and the West of our continent. And those who do not want to give up on Greater Europe should review and revise their approaches in light of the Ukrainian crisis. One of the realistic, albeit ambitious, priorities today may be to promote the common European or even Euro-Atlantic humanitarian space of civil societies. Though security, economic and humanitarian social dimensions of European politics are interconnected and interdependent, it is the people-to-people dimension that should receive special attention in the times of trouble.

A key characteristic of the people-to-people cooperation is in its multifaceted, extremely diverse and complex nature. This cooperation includes a whole universe of directions and engaged actors, formats and levels, communities and networks. The "fabric" of humanitarian ties between the people might look thin and fragile, but it often proves to be much more "crisis-resistant" than security or even economic interaction.

Over the last 10 years, civil society humanitarian cooperation emerged as one of the most successful and least controversial areas of EU-Russia cooperation. Its institutional framework was set back in 2003, when Moscow and Brussels constituted the Common Space of research and education, including the cultural cooperation as well. Over last 10 years, we've seen thousands and thousands of innovative projects uniting students and scholars, civil society leaders and journalists, artists and intellectuals from Russia and Europe. These contacts have gone far beyond Moscow and Brussels, engaging participants from remote regions, small provincial towns and rural areas. Moreover, this kind of humanitarian cooperation has proved to be unquestionably beneficial to both sides.

The crisis in and around Ukraine pushed the issue of humanitarian cooperation to the sidelines of political discussions. Experts and politicians on both sides seem to be preoccupied with other more urgent and more critical matters. One can conclude that during these hard times with all the risks and uncertainties involved, it makes sense to put matters of humanitarian cooperation on a shelf, until the moment when the overall political situation becomes more favorable for such cooperation. We believe that such a "wait and see" approach would be a strategic mistake. It is exactly in the period of a deep political crisis when interaction in education, culture and civil society should be given a top priority.

The Ukrainian crisis is not a compelling reason for us to abandon the strategic goal of building a common European and Euro-Atlantic humanitarian space. Of course, the crisis made this goal much harder to achieve, but it did not change the fundamentals. Russia is a country of the European culture. It belongs to the European civilization, and its science, education and its civil society institutions gravitate to Europe more than to any other region of the world. A common humanitarian space is not a pipe-dream. It remains a natural point of destination for the West and the East of our continent. However, keeping the strategic goal in mind, we should also think about damage limitation, about how to mitigate the negative impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the fabric of the humanitarian cooperation between Russia and Europe. Two urgent tasks appear to be of particular importance in the midst of the crisis.

First, it is necessary to protect the ongoing people-to-people cooperation from becoming yet another bargaining chip in the game of sanctions and counter-sanctions. To the extent possible, the people-to-people dimension of the EU-Russia relations should be insulated from the negative developments in security, political and economic dimensions.

Second, this humanitarian cooperation should be used to counter inflammatory rhetoric, projection of oversimplified and false images, and spread of Manichean black and white views on European politics, which we see emerging both in the East and in the West. We should not have any illusions: If the current trends in public moods in Russia and in EU are not reversed, it would be extremely difficult to restore our relations, even when the Ukrainian crisis is resolved.

There are many specific actions needed to accomplish these tasks. We should try to promote "success stories" in Russia-Europe humanitarian cooperation between civil societies, which we have accumulated plenty in various fields. We should oppose any attempts to tighten the visa regime between Russia and EU. We should encourage more contacts between Russian and EU regions, sister-cities and municipalities, including trans-border contacts. We should invest heavily into youth exchanges, school children and students mobility. We should upgrade cooperation between Russian and European independent think tanks and research centers. We should broaden existing channels for a range of participants to EU-Russia NGO interaction, making sure that this interaction is not monopolized by any particular group of institutions with their specific political agendas. We should explore new ways to make cultural diplomacy between the East and the West of Europe more efficient. We should pay special attention to building more contacts between Russia and EU media. We should investigate opportunities associated with cultural tourism.

The list of immediate actions can be continued. These actions might look less spectacular than a highly publicized security agreement or a multi-billion euro energy deal. But we should never forget that, at the end of the day, relations between Russia and the West are not limited to contacts between state leaders, diplomats, uniformed men or even between business tycoons. These relations are mostly about ordinary people -- their fears and hopes, frustrations and expectations, and their day-to-day lives and plans for the future.

Without the human factor involved, nothing else is likely to work. But we would like to propose one action that can be taken immediately, one action that could be a symbol of determination and of hope, one action toward the youth of Europe and Russia. In the same way as France and Germany reconciled with the Elysee Treaty in 1963 by creating a common agency for the youth, we would like to see the premises of a Russian-European reconciliation through the creation of a Russian-European Youth Agency based on student exchanges, fellowships for entrepreneurial and innovative initiatives, support for language training, and many other actions.

This post originally appeared on Le Monde and was translated into English.