Monday, November 24, 2008

PCA? The EU needs a real Russia debate

by Katinka Barysch

Was the EU right to resume negotiations on a new partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA) with Russia despite Moscow not fully complying with the Georgia ceasefire plan? Probably not. But the real problem with the EU’s decision is that it has not been accompanied by a more strategic debate about EU-Russia relations.

The last EU-Russia summit on November 14th in Nice was remarkable not only because of the EU’s apparent U-turn with regard to the PCA talks. It was also exceptionally brief (with only two hours for discussion) and largely free of the antagonistic exchanges that have come to characterise these six-monthly meetings. In one respect, however, the summit felt familiar: it was preceded by much disagreement among the EU members. In the end it was only Lithuania that held out against a resumption of PCA talks, with the Commission and the other 26 EU governments supporting it – some more grudgingly than others. Germany, France and Italy were keen to demonstrate that the EU still considers Russia a partner. Many of the Central and East European members supported the PCA talks simply because they feared the alternative: if EU-Russia relations remained blocked, bilateral relations between Moscow and the big EU member-states would inevitably grow stronger and the interests and concerns of the smaller ones would be sidelined.

When European leaders decided to “postpone” the PCA talks at their emergency summit on September 1st, they said they would only revisit that decision if and when Russia complied with the six-point ceasefire plan that Nicolas Sarkozy had brokered in the midst of the Georgia war. Russia has pulled troops out of Georgia proper, it has allowed EU monitors to work in Georgia (albeit not in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and it has embarked on multilateral peace talks with the Georgians in Geneva, all as promised. What Russia has not done is withdraw all its troops to the positions they held before August 7th, another condition of the six-point plan. Observers think that Russia has three times as many troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as before the war and that it is building up military installations there. President Medvedev says that Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is “irreversible”, so troop strengths are a matter of negotiations between Moscow and the “sovereign governments” there.

The Europeans know that holding up PCA talks – the conclusion of which is in any case several years away – will not make Russia compromise on something that it considers so close to its national interest. But they already knew that the suspension was of predominantly symbolic value when they decided on it on September 1st (while rejecting other possible sanctions). They could at least have asked Russia to do something symbolic in return, for example expressing a commitment to strengthening the arms control regime in Europe.

The signal the EU has sent now is that it is prepared to accept new realities in the Caucasus and return to business as usual. In fact, the EU did so long before the November 14th summit. After a lull in September, EU-Russia co-operation restarted in October, with several EU-Russia ministerial councils (on energy, foreign affairs and justice and home affairs) and various technical working groups getting together that month. It makes little sense for the EU to continue co-operation at all levels, from expert meetings to summits, while keeping the PCA talks on hold. So unfreezing the talks was consistent, if not exactly brave.

EU politicians do have a point when they say that the Europeans need to continue to engage with Russia in areas ranging from energy security to preventing Iran’s nuclear bomb. What is troubling, however, is that the decision on the PCA was not accompanied by a more thorough debate on the future of the EU’s Russia policy. EU leaders did ask the Commission to conduct an “audit” of the different policy areas that matter for the EU and Russia, such as energy, trade, foreign policy, research and visas. The result is an anodyne, technical document that does little more than illustrate the fact that the EU and Russia depend on each other in many ways. The implicit conclusion is: let’s continue working together. But the document does not answer the question why. Is co-operation a means to an end (it was once seen as a way towards a “strategic partnership” and “common values”)? Is it meant to further the EU’s interests? If so, which ones and how? Or does the EU proceed with the dozens of co-operation and support programmes simply because it cannot agree on an alternative?

The Europeans need a more political, strategic debate about what they want and need from Russia. This will take time. The Georgia war has not narrowed the gap between the different national positions as much as many people had initially predicted. But this gap makes a political debate on Russia all the more urgent. By next year the Europeans will have to forge a coherent response to Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security architecture. Sarkozy told Medvedev at the Nice summit that the idea would be discussed within the framework of the OSCE in 2009. But Sarkozy did not necessarily speak on behalf of his EU colleagues, many of whom suspect strongly that Russia simply wants to split the Europeans and drive a wedge between Europe and the US. Nor did all EU governments welcome Sarkozy’s idea of a ‘deal’ on missiles under which the US would suspend the deployment of missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic while Russia would withdraw the threat of putting Iskander missiles into Kaliningrad.

The PCA negotiations – which will be conducted mainly by the European Commission – will not provide the answer to such questions.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

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