Georgia exposed EU’s weakness

by Tommi Koivula The writer is a senior researcher at the Department of Strategic and Defence Studies in the Finnish National Defence University 27.08.2008

Already at an early stage of the Georgian crisis, the European Union assumed a very public role as a mediator when president Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the holder of the rotating EU presidency, travelled to Moscow and Tbilisi. The intense activity for solving the Georgian conflict has however exposed the incoherence of EU's policy towards Russia in a most painful way.

Soon after the Georgian crisis deteriorated into open warfare two groups of member states emerged with differing views of the events. Most vocal in their criticism of Russian actions were the Baltic states and Poland whose leaders travelled to Georgia to express their support to the Georgian government together with the president of Ukraine.

This group also included Britain whose relations with Russia have been notably cool for some time. Also Sweden strongly condemned the Russian actions through foreign minister Carl Bildt.

Common to the positions of all these countries was the belief that by entering Georgian territory Russia was guilty of an aggression that broke international law. A different position seems to have been taken by France and Germany who have been more understanding of Russian views and have avoided blaming either side. These were the same countries that in the Nato summit in Bucharest last spring prevented Georgia's accession into the organisation, which had been promoted by the United States.

On this occasion it is Italy that has been perhaps been the most understanding of Russia. Foreign minister Franco Frattini has observed in an interview that prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a close ally of Vladimir Putin and that the crisis has only distanced Georgia from Europe.

The divergent positions make sense to the individual countries themselves. This however creates the problem that by its incoherent reaction, the EU remains an under-achiever in its relations with Russia.

Traditionally Russia has - for good reason - found it difficult to understand the nature of the European Union as a foreign policy player and the problems encountered by the ratification of the Lisbon treaty have not made the situation clearer.

The internal disunity that the EU has displayed in many issues has further diminished in Russian eyes its standing as a credible actor in security matters. The tendency of some member states to enter into bilateral agreements with Russia on specific issues that are of special importance to them has become a factor that is only too easy for Russia to use for its advantage.

It is obviously not the first time that the European Union fails to establish a common position in a current world situation - we all remember the divisions within the Union when the United States attacked Iraq in 2003.

The pressure for more effective policies towards Russia is growing, however. The Georgian crisis should be the catalyst that forces the Union to learn to speak with one voice when addressing Russia. Otherwise there is a risk that the differing opinions within the union are seen as a chronic weakness at a time when Russia appears increasingly confident.

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