The European Union and Russia after Georgia

Paul Gillespie
10 September 2008

The European Union has taken a measured route between Vladimir Putin's Moscow and Dick Cheney's Washington in its combination of refusing to impose sanctions on Russia after its military and diplomatic actions in Georgia while firmly setting a test for Moscow over the next two months about its willingness to cooperate with other Europeans.

Paul Gillespie is foreign-policy editor of the Irish Times. He lectures on European politics in the school of politics and international relations, University College Dublin
Also by Paul Gillespie in openDemocracy:

"Ireland's 'no' is EU's opportunity
" (14 June 2001)

"Towards a partnership of equals: European-US relations" (14 October 2001)

"Europe thrives on national debate" (23 October 2002)

"Ireland breaks Europe's democratic code" (24 June 2004)

Instead of the widely canvassed divisions at the emergency summit on 1
September 2008, there was a surprising consensus about how to proceed between harder and softer positions. The crisis emphasises what is at stake in creating a more coherent EU foreign policy; the importance of doing so; and the marked contrast between European Union and United States approaches to European security.

The EU leaders expressed grave "concern" about the conflict, the resulting violence, and the "disproportionate reaction of Russia". They condemned Moscow's "unacceptable" decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They stressed the right of "all European states [including Georgia]. .. freely to determine their foreign policy and their alliances" and respect for the legitimate "security interests" of each, Russia included. They pledged large-scale humanitarian aid to Georgia, free-trade agreements, and vowed to pursue an enhanced political agreement with the country under the European Union's "European Neighbourhood Policy" (ENP).

These conclusions built on France's rapid initiative in brokering a six-point ceasefire agreement signed by the Georgian and Russian presidents (Mikheil Saasakshvili and Dmitry Medvedev) to conclude the immediate hostilities. This document has several ambiguous clauses, but it at least provides a benchmark to evaluate the scaling-down of military confrontation and a pledge to monitor it that includes the involvement of unarmed EU observers.

The wider Atlantic

Several commentators have pointed out that Russia was probably more willing to deal with France in its role as holder (for July-December 2008) of the EU presidency, rather than with a smaller state such as the Czech Republic (France's successor in the next six-month period, January-June 2009). The enhanced arrangements provided for in the Lisbon treaty - rejected by Irish voters in the referendum of 12 June 2008 - would have provided for a different negotiating model that guaranteed greater continuity: a more high-profile EU president for a period of between two-and-a-half to five years, along with a foreign-policy "high representative" straddling the inter-governmental council of ministers and the commission.

This new structure would not in itself guarantee a reconciliation between differing national policies and interests across the European Union, nor avoid reproducing existing institutional rivalries between the council and the commission; but they would make the EU more visible as an international actor and - probably - more effective.

Indeed, the EU has over recent years acquired - gradually, pragmatically and often accidentally - many characteristics of an "external strategy" of several layers and a wide remit. This encompasses territorial politics, economics and value-projection at internal, regional and global levels. The Lisbon treaty brings them together into a more coherent framework. Such crises as the Georgia-Russia conflict will increase the imperative in those member-states who have not yet done so to ratify and implement the treaty; this is a political fact that Irish parties and voters should be aware of in coming months, as discussion of what to do after the referendum "no" intensifies.

Also in openDemocracy on Europe, Russia and global politics before and after the crisis over Georgia:

George Schöpflin, "The new Russia: a model state" (27 February 2008)

Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits" (13 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Mediterranean mirage: Europe's sunken politics" (29 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, Sovereignty, Status and the Humanitarian perspective" (26 Aug 2008) Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section for reports, debates and blogs

This development of a more ambitious and coherent European external strategy also means that EU policy will be subject to more criticism for failing to live up to its political or rhetorical promises, or for the hypocrisy of disguising its particular interests in universalist language. That is the price of acting in a more multipolar global setting. But most member-states and voters - aware that their mutual interdependence and shared insecurity on their border regions (southeast Europe, north Africa, the Caucasus) necessitate common action - are prepared to pay this price.

Similarly, most member-states and voters prefer the EU's concentration on "soft power" (based on the attraction and projection of the union's values) rather than "hard power" (based on military action and projection of force) - if it is feasible. That is in contrast to US policy in particular cases and indeed more generally. Thus it is a mistake to assume a simple convergence between EU and US values and interests. There has been much tension between them in the immediate aftermath of the cold war; through the periods of EU and Nato enlargements of the 1990s; followed by the US-led effort to project them both in a global setting, especially in Afghanistan. That effort remains controversial and will continue to be so, whoever wins the US election.

The deeper union

In several major respects the emergent EU strategy is pitched against US policy in a context where US unilateralism is losing its strength. This can be seen through the Georgia events. Washington emphasises that Georgia and Ukraine should be guaranteed Nato membership, but this is resisted (by France and Germany especially) as provocative. Moreover, while Poland and the Baltic states value US security guarantees against a resurgent Russia, they stop short of agreeing this is a new cold war and realise the importance of reaching a long-term deal with Russia on energy, security and political freedoms.

Russian leaders in turn have a real stake in that, and can be expected to respond rationally if they want to avoid a new isolation. The test will come if and when negotiations between the European Union and Russia resume in October, as agreed in Moscow on 8 September following talks between the EU trio of Nicolas Sarkozy, José Manuel Barroso (president of the European commission), and Javier Solana (high representative for foreign policy) and their Russian host, Dmitry Medvedev.

The EU's European Neighbourhood Policy is quite inadequate to this task. It is being extended to encompass an eastern as well as a Mediterranean dimension, but is still predicated too much on an approach characterised as "everything but institutions" by Romano Prodi, when as European commission president he launched the ENP in 2004. This was to avoid extending a future EU membership commitment to associated states. But is has restricted thinking through the ways in which institutionalised cooperation short of membership could be constructed.

Russia demands separate treatment, but there is a great absence of long-term thinking about a coherent relationship between the two strategies and how they should be better resourced. One suggestion worth taking forward is John Palmer's proposal for a United European Commonwealth to include the ENP states and Russia (see Beyond EU Enlargement? Creating a United European Commonwealth, Sussex European Institute, July 2008).

This would replicate the EU's own arrangements for deciding issues of mutual interest through both cooperation and a degree of sovereignty-sharing. The mandate for such an overarching, pan-European community would have to be more limited than that of the EU itself - perhaps focusing on the security, legal, economic, human-rights and energy issues at the heart of the draft EU-Russia agreement now to be made the test of Russia's willingness to cooperate with other Europeans.

The big difference with the current ENP would be that participating countries would take decisions collectively, and not merely be expected to adopt EU policy decisions. Although qualification for membership should be linked to proven observation of the Council of Europe's democratic and legal standards, accession should be open in principle to all countries across the greater Europe - including the Russian Federation.

The opportunity was missed to initiate and reach such a deal over the last eight years; it will be much harder now that the Georgian crisis has hardened attitudes all round.

The longer view

Despite the rhetoric this is not a new cold war. Russia is a regional rather than a global power. In its post-communist persona it lacks an exportable ideology and has a notably reduced power to attract allies (see Martin Wolf, "The return of the Russia the west loves to loathe", Financial Times, 29 August 2008). It is significant that China refused to extend its solidarity over Georgia, notwithstanding the shared authoritarian capitalism between Beijing and Moscow. Instead, Russia behaves as a 19th-century power to reinforce its pride and insert fear into its "near abroad". That is not a sustainable policy, but it is more comprehensible as a transitional one that grows out of the humiliating 1990s. In addition, for all its energy wealth Russia's economy is only about 7% of those of the United States and European Union, and qualitatively less developed.

All this suggests that the EU needs to develop a long-term response that takes full account of political mistakes made by its own members, separately and collectively, in managing relations with Russia during Vladimir Putin's presidency. Its leverage is more political and economic than military; but security looms large in both dimensions.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData