Global Economics

Europe: Tougher Than It Looks on Russia


People in Brussels no longer roll their eyes when Eastern Europeans warn of the Russia threat. Since Georgia, they take it seriously

Even allowing for the difficulty of the situation, the European Union's reply on 1 September to Russia's aggression against Georgia might seem weak and meager. Suspending talks on the EU-Russia framework agreement—which weren't going anywhere anyway—unless Moscow does something it had already promised to do—withdraw its army to pre-conflict positions—is really very little.

There is little that can be done. The war is over, Georgia has been humiliated, and it's not as if anyone's going to send tanks to dislodge the Red, sorry, Russian army from its positions in the faraway Caucasus. Certainly not the EU, for it hasn't any. Frankly, the Russians have won and it's too late to do anything about it.

Actually, the EU's reaction, agreed at a special summit of its leaders, may amount to a bit more than we were led to expect. For one thing, there was a special summit. That happens very rarely; the last one was in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war. That in itself shows that Europe, as a whole, takes the matter seriously, something that hadn't always been clear.

For another thing, based on the pre-summit newspaper reports, which ranged from cynical to hysterical, on the "deep split" among members, the bellicose and the "appeasers," one might have expected there was never going to be a common position at all. That the EU, too, would be left humiliated, its pretense to a common foreign policy—and to being a great power—in shambles again.

That didn't happen. There did emerge a common position, perhaps not as strong as the hawks in Eastern Europe and Britain would have liked. But strong enough to momentarily satisfy them and to contain the seeds of further escalation if Russia doesn't comply. Much stronger, also, than the draft circulated by the French EU presidency before the summit, thanks primarily to the Baltic states and Poland. These are the countries that are the most concerned, understandably, about the bellicose new Russia.

It must endlessly be underscored how difficult it is to achieve a common position of 27 states on matters as difficult as foreign and security policy. This is not some market directive that they can wrangle over for years. Control over foreign affairs goes to the heart of what it means to be a sovereign state. And policy toward Russia is one of the most crucial issues today.

L'UNION, C'EST MOI

The success, qualified though it may be, is partly explained by the dexterity of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. "There was a lot of hysterics about sanctions just before the summit but Sarkozy handled the Eastern Europeans very well. And nobody came away unsatisfied," one EU ambassador told me.

But the main explanation is that there never really was a deep split within the EU. At least not as deep as the newspapers had made it out to be. There may have been a "good cop, bad cop" element to the pre-summit declarations, with the Germans sounding more conciliatory and the British banging on about Russian aggression. But "ministers always behave differently inside the council chamber because they know nobody can overhear them," said one longtime official at the European Council.

Different exactly how? What the outcome of the summit demonstrates most forcefully is that the Russians may have overplayed their hand with this war. Europe, with its myriad national interests and very different perceptions of Russia, was never really going to have a united front on this matter unless—and this is what the Georgia war has provided—it came under a significant external threat.

"The Russians always make the same mistake. They are too aggressive and help their enemies come together. It is now obvious even to the romantics that this is a new Russia, one that is trying to change the status quo," said Jorg Himmelreich, a Russia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

External threats are good for unity. The Soviet threat was one of the main engines of Western European integration after World War II. It brought West Germany in from the cold. Its disappearance after the fall of communism is arguably one of the reasons integration has slowed down in our time. Peace and plenty rarely make for visionary leaders. But nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of hanging, as Dr. Johnson said. Or enemies at the gate, we might add.

And there are few areas where the evolution of the EU by enlargement has been more obvious. Eastern policy would be very different without Poland and the Baltic states. There barely was an Eastern policy in Brussels before enlargement. National interest, geography, history, personal experience, even language and kinship—all the baggage of Eastern Europe contrived to not only beef up EU policy toward Russia, but also to shape its foundations.

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Russia would matter a lot less were it not for enlargement. It would be a lot farther away, to begin with. Now it's a neighbor with declared interests on our land. President Dmitry Medvedev has made this clear in his latest speech on Russian foreign policy principles, including a perceived right to interfere on behalf of its people (think of the Russian minorities living in the Baltics). Enlargement has been at least as important a factor in Europe's relationship with Russia as dependence on her oil and gas.

None of this is so clear-cut, of course. There is no "Eastern European" position on Russia. People in the Baltics and in Poland almost certainly feel more threatened than Romanians and Bulgarians. Hungarians may be wary of the bear as much as anybody—they fought it three times in the last century—but they are dependent on Gazprom deliveries. And so they remained silent on Monday. But Poland burns coal for electricity and the Czechs have diversified.

Will they play their hand cleverly? Perhaps not. The new EU members have still a long way to go to master the intricacies of EU decision-making. They are still better at giving press conferences than working the committees and cutting clever deals to seriously affect policy. But there was a time, not so long ago, when people in Brussels would roll their eyes when some Lithuanian MEP made an agitated speech about the Russian threat. No longer.


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