Analysis: Pragmatism beats principle as EU re-opens Russia talks

11th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

After Russia's invasion of Georgia, EU leaders decided to break off talks on a so-called "New EU-Russia Agreement" on issues ranging from energy to culture until Moscow pulled its troops back to pre-conflict lines

Brussels -- The European Union's decision to re-open talks on a strategic treaty with Russia even though its key demand has not been fulfilled may smack of diplomatic defeat but it is a victory of pragmatism over principle, analysts said Monday.

"It's a question of how the EU could have more leverage in pressuring Russia to meet its interests," Oksana Antonenko, senior fellow and Russia expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, told DPA. "Suspending talks is unlikely to have an impact, dialogue is more likely (to do so)."

Piotr Kaczynski, expert on the issue at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), echoed that analysis, saying, "the most important element of EU policy is effectiveness."

"If we're not effective in dealings with Russia, what can we do? Adjust and be more effective," he said.

On Sept. 1, after Russia's invasion of Georgia, EU leaders at an emergency summit decided to break off talks on a so-called "New EU-Russia Agreement" on issues ranging from energy to culture until Moscow had pulled its troops back to pre-conflict lines.

On Friday, the EU is set to host Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit in the French resort of Nice which is intended to "review the implementation" of that decision.

But long before the summit, Medvedev made it abundantly clear that his compliance would only go so far.

Between Sept. 9 and Nov. 5, he announced that Russia was to double the number of troops it holds in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sign mutual-defense treaties with the two regions and station missiles in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad -- right next to EU members Poland and Lithuania.

And Europe's diplomatic front crumbled as officials admitted that Russia was, at best, unlikely ever to pull back to pre-war lines -- despite a withdrawal from most of "core" Georgia in early October.

"The EU is trying to avoid confrontation: the thinking is that the punishment wouldn't be effective, so why take it?" Kaczynski said.

In the run-up to Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, officials warned that a failure to re-start talks would leave member states to cut their own deals with the Kremlin.

"If we don't have EU-Russia negotiations, do you think anyone wouldn't negotiate with Russia? Would it be in Lithuania's or Poland's interest to have other countries reaching bilateral agreements?" European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in an impassioned outburst on Friday.

Indeed, analysts agree that the EU's biggest member states are simply more interested in defending their own economic links with Russia than they are in fighting for Georgia's sovereignty.

"When we talk about the EU's economic relations with Russia, the biggest lobby for a softer position is not Bulgaria or Italy, it's the German industries and businesses that invested in Russia," Kaczynski pointed out.

But that means, paradoxically, that the EU is far more likely to get tough with Russia over economic issues such as energy, trade and investor freedom than it is over the Georgian occupation.

And experts say that that, in turn, means that the EU's decision to re-open talks despite Russia's refusal to make a full withdrawal to pre-war lines is not so much an admission of defeat as a shift to another -- and, for Europe, far more important -- battleground.

"It's important to engage Russia on issues where EU interests are involved, (and) they have more leverage by engaging in talks than by postponing them. That's exactly the point," Antonenko said.

Ben Nimmo/DPA/Expatica

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