Europe’s Recurring Question of Unity over Russia

summit090108.jpg France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (L) and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering (R) are pictured prior to an emergency summit of European Union leaders on the crisis in Georgia at the headquarters of the European Council on September 1, 2008 in Brussels. (AFP/Getty) European Union leaders met in Brussels today for an emergency summit to “re-examine” relations with Russia, and determine a proper response to the unilateral invasion of Georgia. As may be expected with nearly any EU decision regarding Russia, there is once again important differences among member states and (again) a question over unity. In a staggering display of bureaucracy rivaled only by the UN, the EU leaders issued a soft joint draft statement remarking that “With the crisis in Georgia, relations between the EU and Russia have reached a crossroads. (…) The Union will remain vigilant, [and that the review] may lead to decisions on the continuation of discussions on the future of relations between the Union and Russia in various areas.” In other words, Russia can rest easy for the time being … whenever Europe doesn’t know what to do, they just promise to think about it some more.

Although not all of the conclusions of the summit have reached the public, it is quite likely that a number of member states are opposed to placing economic sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. However, what is more likely is that the EU will focus on deepening political and economic ties with Georgia instead, and perhaps even pushing for NATO MAP status – an outcome that is perhaps more unpalatable to Moscow than economic sanctions themselves.At the core of the EU’s lack of unity over Russia policy is the impact of disaggregation – a topic which I’ve blogged about for quite some time. Each EU country has a unique relationship with Russia, often influenced by business ties, personal relationships, and level of energy dependence (some former KGB officers even allegedly maintain relations with former Stasi agents highly placed in Germany’s business and political circles). To better grasp the stance of specific nations, one must look at their objectives through their own press.As a background, Russia delivers over 40 percent of Europe’s gas imports, a figure that will rise to 60 percent in 2030, according to the European Commission. A third of Europe’s imported oil now comes from Russia.Britain has been taking the lead in threatening further Russian aggression. The British proposal expressed today further signified the differences in approach to Russia among the larger powers. It now has been documented that Britain has called for the suspension of talks on a new long-term partnership agreement between the EU and Russia in order to signify the united condemnation of Russia’s attempted partition of Georgia. Gordon Brown has also recently suggested that the West should revert informally to meetings of the G7 group of industrial nations, in effect boycotting, without disbanding, the G8 group which includes Russia.These moves, although powerful in notion and even more so if they come to fruition, are more symbolic than a sanction; and such gestures will undoubtedly be a pattern from many of the nations involved at the summit. For example, the Czech government will propose a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a Russian resort 40 kilometers from the border with Abkhazia.As the list of EU nations begins to include Russia’s largest trading partners, so too are their messages to Russia hindered by that unique relationship.Germany is the 27-nation EU’s biggest member and has the closest links to Russia, so it no doubt has the most to lose from threatening to reduce economic ties that flourished under Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who now co-chairs Gazprom’s Nord Stream pipeline project.Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democratic Union, is pushing her to confront Russia to improve its record on human rights and democracy, however the Chancellor is constrained by the coalition partner, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which is traditionally closest to the Russians. The German stance will stress dialogue over sanctions or confrontational rhetoric because they seemingly aren’t prepared to risk Germany’s place as Russia’s No. 1 European trading partner.Italy, Russia’s second largest trading partner, shares a similar approach to Germany’s SPD. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi earlier today warned that confrontations might lead Russia to pursue and develop new energy customers in Asian regions, severely detrimental to Europe. In his words, “Moscow must be kept from looking to the East instead of the West‘.” Before the summit he also commented that the summit “looks to dialogue rather than confrontation. (…) I hope there will be unity in deciding not to impose sanctions on Russia.“Current EU and French President Sarkozy has used strong language to criticize Russia’s handling of the intervention in Georgia, but he alongside French Prime Minister Francois Fillon have said that sanctions against Russia are not on the agenda today. Fillon instead called for further dialogue with Moscow.So there we have it – Europe is “united” in its opposition to the war Russia has waged in Georgia, but the only thing they agree on is that dialogue is the way to move forward. That’s all fine and well, and as Clifford G. Gaddy is arguing, economic sanctions could hurt Europe just as much as it hurts Russia, but until we hear more about exactly what sort of dialogue the EU wants to have with the Kremlin, and exactly how they choose to express their disapproval of the war, I’m not very optimistic that anything will change for the better.But we are witnessing a gradual shift. Russia continues to have the ability to disaggregate EU members into disagreement over common policy, but much less so than in the past. The more convergence we see as represented by these kinds of emergency summits of EU members, the greater the level of parity and balance we’ll see in Europe-Russia relations … and that’s good for everybody.