'We are Extremely Concerned': The EU and Georgia

As European foreign ministers gather for an emergency meeting and the diplomacy to halt the violence in Georgia intensifies, we must take stock of the performance of the EU’s foreign policy in this conflict. The conclusions are tentative, but still unmistakable: yet again, Europe scores poorly.

By Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies, RUSI

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy representing the presidency of the European Union will shortly be flying to Moscow in order to appeal to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to stop the military offensive in Georgia. A meeting of the EU foreign ministers is also scheduled for Wednesday, and an emergency European Council meeting a summit of the EU heads of states and governments may also be in the planning.

So, at every level, Europe appears to be in the thick of events, doing its best to stop the bloodshed. But, on closer inspection, this is the traditional sort of European activity: grand proposals, the clocking of plenty of frequent flyer air miles, yet little of substance. Here is an assessment of the EU’s contributions to date, and the preliminary conclusions which can be drawn about Europe’s performance:

It matters who is in the presidency chair

On a positive note, it clearly helps that a big EU country has the presidency of the EU. This is not to suggest that a smaller nation such as Slovenia, which had the presidency of the EU until July this year, or the Czech Republic, which will assume the presidency in January cannot work well and make a valuable contribution. Nevertheless, it is patently obvious that if the presidency is in the hands of a big nation, and particularly one with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, this helps. The French were able to swing into action fast: Mr Sarkozy talked with a variety of leaders (including the Russian ones) on the day of the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing; he followed it through with various missions, a coherent contribution to the UN Security Council debates, the mission by Bernard Kouchner the French Foreign Minister to Georgia and the swift arrangements for a summit with the Russians later in the week. Some of these activities could have been undertaken if the EU presidency was in the hands of a smaller nation, but not all of them: size still has its privileges, even in the EU.

'New' and 'Old' Europe remain worlds apart

All the European governments were shocked by the events in Georgia. But not all reacted in the same way: while the Western states usually expressed their official displeasure in broad terms, Poland and the Baltic States, as well as a number of other former communist countries which recently joined the EU, were much more vociferous in their responses. They consider themselves as directly threatened by the Russian action, and they feel strongly about Georgia’s current plight. The most acute observations about Russia’s behaviour, and the greatest sense of urgency, were expressed by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, and not the French Foreign Minister who could have been expected to take the lead in such a situation. Of course, older diplomats in Western capitals will continue to sniff at the 'emotional politics' in which the Central and East Europeans periodically engage. And it is true that, despite the great level of activity, neither the Poles nor the Balts came with any concrete ideas about what can be done. Nevertheless, it is still a fact that Europe remains divided between its East and West, and Western European governments simply do not feel the same urgency about Russia as do their newer partners. The East-West divide in the EU remains as large as ever.

An obsession with diplomatic processes

Kouchner Shakasvilii

The first thing the Europeans did as the conflict erupted was to debate in their time-honoured way about the diplomatic process which should be followed, rather than the nature of the outcome. Over the last weekend, much of the discussion between the European capitals was on whether a meeting of foreign ministers should take place (yes) and whether this may be followed by a summit of heads of state and governments (maybe). Next to nothing was said about what these meetings are meant to achieve, and nobody attempted to inform the media about what the EU as a whole wants to promote, apart from the general (although, no doubt, genuine) aspiration to 'stop the violence'.

A propensity to come up with irrelevant plans

True to the EU tradition, the French presidency quickly elaborated a 'plan' to 'resolve' the Georgian crisis. In the words of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, this consists of 'first point, a cease-fire. Second, access to the victims. The third point is the withdrawal of the troops on both sides, a controlled withdrawal of the troops. It means that we need controllers, watchers, people in charge of, and a fourth, most important in a way, the fourth point is of course comeback to the political process, and it means that the European Union at least, and the OSCE, both of them, they are ready to do so, but for the rest we'll see UN involvement or not, etcetera. Let's come back to the key of the problem, the key is a political key, certainly not a military key,' he said. 'That's the four points.'

One should make allowances for the fact that Mr Kouchner was speaking in the heat of battle, having just ducked Russian bombs while visiting the Georgian city of Gori. But, even if Kouchner’s infelicities and garbled messages are set aside, does anyone believe that the EU plan has any chance of success? A ceasefire in Georgia is clearly the starting point, and may be accomplished, although certainly not because of the EU, but when the Russians think they have achieved their objectives. Access to the victims may well be allowed afterwards. But the withdrawal of the troops 'on both sides'? Does anyone believe that Russian forces will withdraw now from the enclaves of South Ossetia or Abkhazia? Where should the Georgian forces withdraw to? Out of their own country? And what about the political process? The EU is clearly not very convinced about its own role in this, if it is already prepared to hint that it may give way to the OSCE, the UN or the 'etcetera'. To be sure, the United States was not better; Washington did not come with a more interesting diplomatic plan either. But at least the Americans did not produce a 'four point' proposal which persuades nobody and which even its drafters must have known has no chance of ever being realised.

All carrots and no stick

As the conflict in Georgia accelerated, the US warned that, if Moscow continues to press its military offensive, this will have 'lasting consequences' on America’s relations with Russia. Furthermore, in a telephone call to Georgian President Saakashvili, US Vice-President Dick Cheney said Russian aggression 'must not go unanswered'. And the EU? It pledged 1 million Euros for the distressed people of South Ossetia, while 'underscoring' that the 'continuation of military actions could affect the EU’s relations with Russia'. At first sight, not much of a difference between the US and the EU. But a closer look reveals quite a number of discrepancies. Germany, which has strong economic links and interests with Russia said very little of any consequence. And the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi actually sided with Russia. Signor Franco Frattini, his Foreign Minister, told the newspaper La Stampa 'We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe, and on this point we are close to Putin's position,' he said. 'This war has pushed Georgia further away ... from Europe.' So, according to the Italian logic, the only threat which had to be issued now is one directed at Georgia, rather than Russia. No doubt, this behaviour will be rewarded with a few extra barrels of Russian oil, but it does nothing for European credibility.

Yet again, no coordination between the EU and NATO

Both the EU and NATO are holding emergency meetings to discuss the crisis. Both are hearing from the protagonists, and both express their 'worry' about the events. But neither of these institutions which remain the pillars of European security arrangements have seen fit to talk to each other. Yet again, this is a familiar story, which does not get better with its frequent repetition.

Plenty of options, but all untouched

A good case can be made that all this criticism is misplaced, and that the EU has no other workable options, apart from continuing to urge moderation on all sides. But that’s simply not true. Just consider the following:

  • The EU is currently negotiating a new comprehensive treaty with Russia, a document which may be good to have, but is not essential. The negotiations on this new treaty have already proven highly controversial, and have yet to achieve any results. Why not announce that the discussions will be frozen, until the situation in Georgia stabilises and both sides return to the negotiating table?
  • The Russians are also worried about the possibility that their oil companies will be restricted from buying European assets. Why not announce that the EU is considering precisely such restrictions, and that it may impose them if the military offensive in Georgia continues?
  • Russia is officially keen to join the World Trade Organisation, but will not be able to, given Georgia’s certain opposition. Could the EU not consider announcing that, if the bloodshed in the Caucasus continues, the EU itself will not support Russia’s WTO application?

None of these measures is ideal, and some remain more demonstrative rather than real. Yet to suggest that the EU has no instruments to put pressure on Russia is nonsense: it has, but does not wish to use them, or cannot achieve a consensus about using them.

No doubt, in the years to come, books will be written about Europe’s 'actions' in the Caucasus. And learned conferences will take place, trying to draw the appropriate 'lessons' from the conflict, invariably ending with the message that 'Europe must try to do better'.

The reality remains, however, that yet again the performance of European diplomacy has been, at best, pedestrian.

Europe CAN do better. Yet it won’t.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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