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EU Summit on Russia: Sarkozy and Merkel Soften Up the Hardliners

By in Brussels

Last week, some European Union members talked of levying sanctions on Moscow. On Monday evening in Brussels, however, German and French-style diplomacy won out.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was visibly relaxed when he appeared before the press in the Justus Lipsius building, headquarters of the European Council, in Brussels. But before he addressed the issue at hand -- namely the ongoing Georgia-Russia crisis -- he gave a quick history lesson. The EU, he pointed out, had held an extraordinary summit once before. It was February 2003, just before the beginning of the Iraq War. It was a time of disunity, Sarkozy said. "We weren't listened to." Sarkozy was referring to "we Europeans."

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were intent on diplomacy in Brussels on Monday.
AP; REUTERS

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were intent on diplomacy in Brussels on Monday.

It was an historical comparison that was meant to put Sarkozy, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, in a positive light. Every summit has to somehow be seen as a success and now, five and a half years after the last extraordinary summit, the EU wants above all to demonstrate unity. That is the message sent on Monday night by the 27 European leaders gathered in Brussels.

Sarkozy spoke of a "great readiness for unity despite varying sensitivities." Not long later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed her French counterpart, saying the EU was sending a "signal of unity and resolve."

The two leaders were referring to the 11-point declaration passed by the European Council on Monday evening. Despite differences among the 27 EU member-states, the bloc was able to agree on a document that once again emphasized the territorial integrity of Georgia and referred to Russia's reaction as being "disproportionate."

The statement, though, is most notable for what it does not include. In the five page document, the word "sanctions" doesn't make a single appearance.

It is, of course, a calculated omission. Even as a number of European Union countries -- particularly those in Eastern Europe -- had wanted to levy sanctions against Russia, others such as France and Germany insisted on diplomacy. Indeed, just one week from now, Sarkozy will travel to Moscow along with the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The document presented on Monday should also be read in light of this impending trip -- namely, as a document of hope intended to keep open the channels of communication with Russia.

France had already made clear at the end of last week that Paris was not interested in taking any drastic measures. Sarkozy echoed that message again on Monday. "I want to make it clear that this summit was not called in opposition to Russia," he said.

Even those few warnings that were fired off in the direction of the Kremlin were more of a reserved nature. "What does Russia want?" Sarkozy asked. "Trust and cooperation or mistrust and tension?"

Perhaps realizing that not everyone would be satisfied with the moderate tone from Brussels, the French president went out of his way to explain. One has to "do what is necessary without getting ahead of ourselves." He said the EU had to leave room to turn up the pressure should need arise. "We have a plan, and if it works, then great. If it doesn't, we will have to reach other decisions," he said vaguely.

The EU prefers to make offers to Georgia than take a tough line against Moscow. It is proposing easing visa restrictions and creating a free trade zone. And the EU wants to organize an international donors conference, which would also apply to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the separatist areas that Russia has just recognized as being independent.

In terms of concrete demands, the EU is asking Russia to pull back from its remaining checkpoints in Georgia proper -- for example at Senaki and the port of Poti. Until this happens, they are postponing talks about a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Moscow. The next round of talks had been scheduled for mid-September.

"Postponed," but not abandoned -- there is a fine line between the two in diplomatic language. If the talks had been abandoned then initiating new ones would have required the approval of the leaders of the EU member states. The decision made in Brussels has given Russia the opportunity to save face, while the EU presidency can be flexible in how it reacts to the situation.

Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made this clear at a joint press conference. They said that it was not the full six-point plan that should be a pre-condition for further partnership talks with the Kremlin, but rather one "specific point" -- the Russian withdrawal from Georgia.

In the past few weeks Germany has worked with France to ease the tensions. Others wanted to take much tougher measures against Russia. Great Britain was pushing for a temporary suspension of talks, while Poland suggested cancelling the EU-Russia summit in Nice, scheduled for mid-November.

In Brussels Merkel added that: "The issue of sanctions did not play a role today." She spoke of the "spirit of responsibility," and said that at the summit she had advocated "not taking five steps all at once."

Steinmeier claimed that the EU decision would not be greeted with much surprise in Moscow -- the German foreign minister had already spoken by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Saturday.

On the whole, Steinmeier seemed relieved that what he called the "spiral of escalation" had not been pushed any further. Compared to the drastic reports of recent days "most" of the EU member states had indicated that "nothing can be achieved" without dialogue with the Kremlin.

In recent days reports had emanated from the Baltic States in particular, but also from Poland, that the politicians would demand sanctions and visa restrictions at the summit. However, that never seemed to be a real issue. Merkel said that "no one had come here thinking that everyone could announce their extreme positions."

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