Lack of Lisbon Treaty hinders EU response to Russian action


EUROPEAN DIARY:The results of the summit show Europe's limitations in the field of foreign affairs, writes Jamie Smyth

THE EUROPEAN Council building in Brussels was a flurry of activity yesterday as EU leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit meeting to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

Top of the agenda was how to deal with a resurgent Russia, which has signalled through its military offensive in the Georgian province of South Ossetia that it is prepared to use force to secure its interests in its own backyard.

There are fears in EU capitals that the crisis in Georgia could spill over into other countries in the region with large Russia minorities, such as Ukraine and Moldova. Speculation about a new cold war is also gathering pace in Brussels, which has moved surprisingly quickly to put itself in the front line of peace efforts since full-scale conflict broke out on August 10th.

"When the house is burning, the priority is to put out the fire," said French president Nicolas Sarkozy in an opinion article he had published in Le Figaro shortly after he helped broker a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia.

"Europe can be proud of this success, which proves that it can do a lot when it is motivated by a strong political will."

However, negotiating a ceasefire and forcing Russia to backtrack on its decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are two different things. And the results of the summit highlight Europe's limitations when it acts in the field of foreign affairs, and particularly in its dealings with Russia.

The summit conclusions strongly criticised Moscow, declaring that EU-Russia relations have reached a "crossroads", but there was no threat to impose the type of sanctions that Georgia claims are necessary to pressure Russia to back down. The Baltic states and Poland, who have bitter memories of living behind the Iron Curtain after the second World War, last week proposed sanctions. But Germany, France and Italy all argued that this would be counterproductive and further dialogue was the key to dealing with Russia.

"Real divisions still exist between the old and the new member states. People in the Baltic states and elsewhere in eastern Europe have watched with horror as tensions between Russia and Georgia have escalated, fearing that they may be the next victims of Russian bullying tactics," says analyst Katinka Barysch in a recent paper on EU-Russia relations published by the think tank Centre for European Reform (CER).

"The big EU countries have always preferred to deal with Russia directly, to get favourable deals for their energy companies and to rub shoulders with the rulers of big, important countries," says Barysch, who argues that EU unity and fresh thinking is needed before the union can find an effective Russian policy.

So far Britain is the only one of the EU's big four (France, Italy and Germany being the other three) to take a tough line with Russia. Against a background of deteriorating bilateral relations with Russia - sparked by the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London and BP's bitter fight with Moscow authorities over its Russian oil interests - British prime minister Gordon Brown urged a "root and branch" review of EU-Russia relations and asked EU leaders to suspend talks on a new EU-Russia partnership deal.

However, Germany, which recently agreed a bilateral deal with Russia to build a new gas pipeline that bypasses other EU states in central Europe, moved to tone down the summit conclusions yesterday.

"The German position is that we should not break off dialogue with Russia," said chancellor Angela Merkel, who despite yesterday's comments has taken a tougher line with Moscow than the previous government led by Gerhard Schröder.

Schröder is now chairman of the firm building the new North European Gas Pipeline, which has enraged German EU partners such as Poland and Lithuania, who also rely on Russian energy and fear Moscow could in the future turn off the gas supply while continuing to supply Germany.

Is there a way the EU can strengthen its presence in the field of foreign affairs and get tough with Russia? In Le Figaro Sarkozy said the Lisbon Treaty would have enabled the union to respond better to the situation in Georgia because it "would have had the institutions it needs to cope with international crises".

Creating a more powerful EU high representative for foreign affairs, a full-time president of the European Council and an EU external action service would certainly provide more continuity to the union's conduct of foreign affairs.

"This would offer the type of credibility of leadership that was important in the Georgian crisis," says Antonio Missiroli, director of the pro-EU think tank the European Policy Centre.

"The EU was lucky France held the EU presidency, because Russia agreed to engage with Mr Sarkozy on the ceasefire. But they may not have engaged with the EU if a smaller country such as the Czech Republic was EU president, especially with its difficult bilateral relationship with Moscow caused by its decision to host US missile defence."

But while Lisbon would create a stronger institutional framework for the EU in the field of foreign relations it is unlikely - in the short term at least - to prevent member states from acting in their own national interest when it comes to relations with Russia and securing the energy supplies they need.