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COMMENTARY

The guns of August






European Council / COMMENTARY
Antonio Missiroli

Date: 04/09/2008
 
It is quite unusual for the EU to convene an extraordinary European Council. The last such case - in early 2003, on Iraq - constituted an unfortunate precedent, as it dramatically displayed intra-EU divisions and ended in bitterness.
 
It is therefore all the more surprising (and positively so) that the crisis summit convened by the French EU Presidency on 1 September to discuss the single potentially most divisive political issue among the 27 - relations with Russia, in the wake of the conflict with Georgia - ended with full agreement and a consensual assessment of the situation. It was certainly not a foregone conclusion, in light of the diversity of statements and reactions coming from most European capitals in the preceding days.
 
It is also quite unusual for any European Council’s Conclusions to combine political statements of principle with operational steps to translate them into action - benchmarks and deadlines included. Yet this is precisely what happened on this occasion: the inevitable compromise between the Member States - especially between those keen to contain (or even punish) Russia, and those keen to engage (and preferably cooperate) with it - has not translated into a lowest common denominator approach nor a purely declaratory document - i.e. the “just lips” policy which (in a reference to the Justus Lipsius building that hosts the Council in Brussels) European foreign policy was long mocked for.
 
In fact, the Presidency Conclusions contain a number of firm principles and concrete steps. They express grave “concern” about the conflict, the resulting violence and the “disproportionate reaction of Russia”, and they condemn Moscow’s “unacceptable” decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They emphasise both the right of “all European states [ .. ] freely to determine their foreign policy and their alliances” and the respect of the legitimate “security interests” of each (including Russia).
 
They call on Moscow to respect all the commitments taken in the Six-point ceasefire Agreement of mid-August and to finalise and implement the agreed “international monitoring mechanism” in the buffer zone adjacent to South Ossetia, in which EU personnel are expected to be involved (the same should happen with the already existing OSCE mission inside South Ossetia). An EU Special Representative for the crisis - in addition to the one covering the South Caucasus - is also to be appointed.
 
The Conclusions also commit the Union to provide millions of euros in emergency humanitarian aid to Georgia (including the two breakaway regions); to convene an international donor conference for the country’s reconstruction; to facilitate visa-free travel for all its citizens; and to establish - in due time - a full and comprehensive free trade area with Tbilisi. They invite the Commission to submit by December 2008 proposals for the adoption - in March 2009 - of the “Eastern Partnership” scheme, within the framework of the current European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
 
Finally, after appealing to Moscow “not to isolate itself from Europe” and to engage instead in partnership and cooperation with the Union, the Conclusions launch a comprehensive evaluation of relations with Russia, to be concluded before the bilateral summit scheduled for 14 November in Nice.
 
Meanwhile, President Sarkozy is set to render himself to Moscow on 8 September, accompanied by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and High Representative Javier Solana, to continue talks with the Russian leadership on the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. As long as the agreed troop withdrawal is not completed, however, the planned bilateral negotiations on the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) - the first one took place in July - are “postponed”.
 
A difficult balance
 
In an editorial from a couple of weeks ago devoted to NATO’s initial response to Russia, The Economist wrote that “finding the line between disapproval, pressure and continued engagement will be hard”. Indeed. For once, however, the EU seems to have passed the test - at least for the time being.
 
The French Presidency must be credited for making this possible. Paris was quick at stepping on stage as soon as the conflict erupted, cleverly playing also on France’s own international status and experience (which made it a credible interlocutor in both Moscow and Tbilisi) as well as on Bernard Kouchner’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s personal strengths - on the humanitarian and the Realpolitik side, respectively.
 
They were also able to present the EU primarily as a ‘peacemaker’ in this context: this prevented the Russian tanks from heading directly to Tbilisi (which would have probably happened without the ceasefire) and filled a spectacular vacuum at the international level. Such mediating role had the additional result of ‘freezing’ a possible dispute inside the EU over which side to blame most for the eruption of the conflict - a complex and controversial issue that, in all likelihood, would have led us nowhere.
 
While the French Presidency was swift and forceful (albeit to the price of temporarily sidelining the permanent EU bodies), also others contributed to the outcome of the summit. The Polish government struck a convincing balance between expressing the fears of most new Member States (especially the Baltic ones) vis-à-vis Russia’s “disproportionate reaction” - by insisting i.a. with Paris on holding the extraordinary summit sooner rather than later - and keeping that within the boundaries of responsible and realistic diplomatic language and action. And the German Chancellor probably tipped the balance in favour of a more critical common position towards Moscow, overcoming the lingering doubts and reservations of her Grand Coalition partners and a few other EU governments.
 
Finally, France and the EU were also helped by the active and constructive role played by Finland (another country both Russia and Georgia accept as a player) in its capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. On the whole, in other words, “Europe” has so far made a good showing despite - and possibly also due to - the different positions that exist inside it over Russia: in a way, a potential weakness has been turned into a temporary strength.
 
This said, there are no laurels to rest on. First of all, it looks unlikely at this stage that all the conditions set by the EU will be met speedily (or altogether). If so, the sensitive issue of what consequences to draw in our relations with Moscow will inevitably arise. While the talk of “sanctions” has been (wisely) discarded, some forms of ‘negative’ diplomacy going beyond the simple postponement of bilateral talks on the new PCA - which is more in our than Russia’s interest anyway - will have to be taken into serious consideration (including possible retaliatory measures from Moscow) bar a net loss of credibility on the EU side.
 
Secondly, and more generally, an escalating “war of words” (and else) between Russia and the West could have negative consequences on a number of other dossiers the EU and its Member States are engaged on: from Kosovo and Moldova to Iran, from the Middle East to Afghanistan. It is probably with this in mind, too, that some European countries made a plea for “principled realism” vis-à-vis Moscow, considering also the degree of mutual dependence that characterises bilateral relations in terms of energy supply lines, trade patterns, and direct investment flows.
 
For the EU, in fact, the risk is to find itself caught and squeezed between a Russia that does not intend to make substantial concessions (whatever the price it may have to pay in terms of international reputation and, also, economic prospects) and a US where a mounting “Cold War II” becomes a defining issue in the ongoing presidential campaign. Vice President Dick Cheney’s sudden return onto the international stage is, in this respect, quite telling.
 
Policies to review
 
Last but not least, the EU will soon be confronted with new demands on its own current policies. This is obviously the case with energy: the Nabucco gas pipeline project is basically stuck, and while a degree of diversification in supply is all the more urgent now, it is also much more difficult, especially in the short term, with investors certainly not encouraged by the events of the past weeks. The business sector is well aware of all this, the Member States apparently less so: the weakest and vaguest section of the Presidency Conclusions is notably the paragraph (9) devoted to that.
 
But it is also the case with neighbourhood and enlargement. Is the current set-up and rationale of the ENP adequate to meet the new challenges emerging e.g. on the Eastern periphery of the enlarged Union? After the conflict, for instance, Georgia is going to get more from the EU than other neighbours, and more quickly: but that is all, as the framework of reference remains the same.
 
Despite the efforts and improvements made by the Commission, in fact, the ENP still suffers from three structural weaknesses: it is neither enlargement nor foreign policy proper, and cannot therefore bring to bear all the tools of either; it is seriously under-resourced and over-reflective of the EU self-interest, so that there is too little in it for the neighbours; and it keeps constituting a catalyst for the different geopolitical priorities of the 27, thus generating permanent internal tensions and, occasionally, even paralysis.
 
It is not by accident that, after Nicolas Sarkozy launched his controversial plan for a “Mediterranean Union”, Poland and Sweden responded with their blueprint for a new “Eastern Partnership”, now on the EU agenda for the next months. Maybe, therefore, the whole policy towards the various neighbourhoods of the Union needs rethinking, including a better tailored approach to the distinct groups of countries all around us.
 
This should involve in particular Turkey, which is at the same time a candidate for EU membership and a key player in the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, and beyond. While accession negotiations are proceeding at snail’s pace (with both sides’ tacit consensus), convergence of purposes and actions is now ever more required in a number of crises - be it with Armenia and Azerbaijan, or Syria and Israel, or the broader Black/Caspian Sea and Central Asian compact.
 
Though not fully acknowledged in Brussels, things have improved in this domain lately, including President Gül’s recent visit to Yerevan on the occasion of the football World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Turkey. By strengthening mutual cooperation and trust, such convergence could also well help tackle the structural difficulties that still affect Ankara’s bid for EU membership.
 
President Sarkozy insists - he did so also at the end of the latest summit - that the solution to all this lies in the Lisbon Treaty, as Nice forbids both a stable and strong EU leadership and further enlargements. This is basically correct in legal terms but does not and should not mean that nothing can be done before (or even without) the desirable entry into force of the new treaty. France has set the example already when the “guns of August” - to quote Barbara Tuchman’s famous book on the outbreak of World War I in Europe - started firing in the Caucasus. Much more can and must be done, especially now that the EU is proving its worth on the international scene.
 
Antonio Missiroli is Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre.

The issues raised in this paper are discussed and analysed in the EPC’s EU Neighbourhood Forum.



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