EU needs to find a way to close divide with eastern neighbours


OUTSIDE POLITICS:A commonwealth of Europe, Russia and the former Soviet satellites could ease tensions, writes John Palmer 

A WEEK after the tentative ceasefire in Georgia and a full Russian troop withdrawal is far from assured. But even if the conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia is defused, the wider strategic, security and political relationships between the United States, the European Union and Russia have been thrown into a crisis unparalleled since the end of the Cold War.

In a disturbing echo of the way seemingly marginal conflicts in the pre-1914 world brought the then Great Powers into confrontation, any of half a dozen flashpoints could yet ignite further dangerous east/west tensions.

Whatever the strong language emanating from this week's Nato meeting in Brussels, the organisation's capacity seriously to influence Russian policy - at least in the short term - is questionable. The European Union could play a more constructive role if it could overcome its own internal divisions.

But EU governments seem bereft of ideas for a long-term strategy to overcome a looming new division on the Eurasian continent. Without such a 10- or 20-year strategy, the confused mosaic of short-term tactics for dealing with Moscow now under discussion appear, at best, irrelevant. At worst, they risk Europe being sucked in behind a potentially disastrous Bush-administration readiness to force a showdown with Putin's Russia.

Confrontational rhetoric has escalated following the Polish decision to locate US interceptor missiles and other new weapons on its soil. A senior Russian military figure has openly threatened that Poland could make itself a target for possible Russian nuclear strikes. The Ukraine has sought to limit the use by Russian naval forces of bases on its soil and Kiev is offering western allies access to its sensitive missile early warning system.

Could all this be a precursor to conflict over the disputed Crimean region? Might the similar simmering dispute between Russia and Moldova over its occupied Transdniestrian province provide another flashpoint?

It is unclear who is deciding policy just now in Washington and Moscow. The US state department reportedly warned Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili against attacking South Ossetia, but that was not listened to. However, vice-president Dick Cheney and the hard-core Bush administration neo-conservatives spared no effort to encourage Saakashvili before hand.

In Moscow there are reports of deep divisions both within the Russian military and the political/security state elite about how far to pursue an uninhibitedly great-power, nationalist strategy - whatever the cost to relations with western countries.

Meanwhile, the 27 European Union governments are struggling to work out how to safeguard Georgian democracy and sovereignty while averting a full-scale political and security crisis with Russia. The more strident calls for confrontation with Russia have come (predictably) from Poland and the Baltic States, but they are not being echoed by the EU as a whole or even all of its east and central European member states.

The majority of EU governments believe the Tbilisi government, foolishly influenced by American neo-cons, fell into a carefully prepared Russian trap by launching its military offensive in South Ossetia. They want Russian troops out of Georgia lock, stock and barrel but believe the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will have to be negotiated and are reluctant to agree to any early admission of Georgia or Ukraine into Nato.

The EU may now decide to abandon planned negotiations for a promised, far-reaching EU-Russia agreement. The agreement had been designed to offer Russia considerable economic advantages as well as provide a more secure framework for managing Europe's energy dependence on Russia.

There is also pressure to block - for now at least - Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation. However, a decision not to include Russia in future G7 world economic summits would look like an impotent gesture.

The Putin regime knows its espousal of 19th-century Russian Tsarist-style policies in its "near abroad" will carry a cost. For now, Russia has a major energy supply card to play to limit its exposure to EU counter measures. But with oil prices falling and the world slowly moving from a carbon economy, Russia's capacity to use energy blackmail may prove more short-lived than the Kremlin would like to believe.

One conceivable response might be for the EU to open the way for full EU membership for Georgia and the other Caucasian states, as well as Ukraine and Moldova. But the European Union is struggling to manage with 27 diverse members at present. It recognises that Croatia, Serbia and other western Balkan countries will probably join sometime in the next decade. With the democratic and decision-making reforms contained in the Lisbon Treaty, this further enlargement will be a daunting enough challenge. However, should the treaty fail and the European Union be forced to struggle on with a seriously outdated governance system, a further drastic enlargement to Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the Caucasus could prove a recipe for EU disintegration.

If the growing divide between the EU and its eastern neighbours (including Russia) is not to grow into a chasm, some alternative will have to be found. One possibility would be for the EU and those of its neighbours who are members of the pan-European Council of Europe to create a United European Commonwealth. This would replicate the EU's own arrangement for deciding issues of mutual interest through both co-operation and a degree of sovereignty sharing. The mandate for such an overarching, pan-European community would have to be more limited than that of the EU itself - perhaps focusing on the security, legal, economic, human rights and energy issues at the heart of the draft EU-Russia agreement.

The big difference with the current European Neighbourhood Policy - which links the EU with its eastern partners - would be that participating countries would take decisions collectively, and not merely be expected to adopt EU policy decisions. Although qualification for membership should be linked to proven observation of the Council of Europe's democratic and legal standards, accession should be open in principle to all countries across the greater Europe - including the Russian Federation.

Russia under Putin's authoritarian rule may neither qualify for nor be interested in membership. But this is a strategy which would attract Russian democrats who have always aspired to be part of "the European family".

It would offer Russia, Ukraine and the others an intimate association of equals with the EU. It would provide a constructive alternative to further (militarily meaningless) enlargement of Nato. It could provide a multi-lateral framework for resolving innumerable border and minority-nationality disputes between states which emerged from the Soviet Union. Above all, it might replace the current exchanges of mutual abuse with dialogue about working out a common destiny.

John Palmer was founding political director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels and was previously european editor of the Guardian. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute at Sussex University and author of an SEI paper Beyond EU Enlargement: Towards a United European Commonwealth. The paper is online at: uk/sei/1-1.php?output=htmlrefer=4854oftype=announcementfromdept=1id=25939