EU-Russia talks likely to resume in November

French president Nicolas Sarkozy and EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner have both stressed the need to resume talks on a new treaty with Moscow in November, despite concerns on the consequences of getting back to "business as usual" with Russia before it fully complies with the ceasefire agreement in Georgia.

"Given the state of the world today, I don't believe the world needs a crisis between Europe and Russia. We can defend our differences, human rights, but it would be irresponsible to create the conditions for a conflict for which we have no need," Mr Sarkozy, who chairs the rotating EU presidency and brokered the cease fire between Moscow and Tbilisi, told members of the European Parliament on Tuesday (21 October).

"Europe should not be an accomplice in starting another Cold War."

His remarks were echoed by Europe's commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who explained the need for dialogue with Russia due to the complex "interdependence" of the EU and Russia in the field of energy and on the international stage in issues like Iran, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or climate change.

"We will have a very important discussion at the next GAERC [foreign ministers meeting] on 10 November and then I do hope that we find the right understanding on pursuing negotiations for the New EU-Russia Agreement. Because, indeed, they have only been postponed," she said, adding that the EU needs to treat Russia "as it is" not as "we would wish it to be."

At a summit last week in Brussels, EU leaders postponed until next month a decision on whether to reopen talks on the partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia, suspended after the military invasion of Georgia. The GAERC meeting will take place only four days ahead of an EU-Russia summit held in the French city of Nice.

Russia invaded Georgia on 7 August as Georgian forces shelled Russia-backed rebels in South Ossetia. But Moscow's later promise to pull troops back to pre-7 August positions and let OSCE monitors into South Ossetia have not yet been fulfilled.

Signalling a change of tone towards Tbilisi, Mr Sarkozy also alluded to Georgia's share of the blame in the August war.

"We saw a war with a completely disproportionate reaction from the Russians in the case of Georgia. It was disproportionate to intervene as the Russians did in Georgia. I also use the word reaction, because that was because there was a preceding inappropriate action, and Europe has to be fair. Europe shouldn't hesitate to step out of the ideological framework," the French president said.

Geneva post-mortem

A political solution to the conflict can only to be found in Geneva, Mrs Ferrero-Waldner said, welcoming the fact that the talks were launched on 15 October, despite the fact they started with a "difficult moment."

The internationally-mediated talks between Russia and Georgia failed last week after Russia insisted on giving delegates from Georgia rebel enclaves South Ossetia and Abkhazia full diplomatic status.

French minister for European affairs, Jean Pierre Jouyet, also speaking in front of the MEPs on Tuesday, said the talks were a success because all parties came to the table.

"Look at how long peace talks take - for instance in the Balkans. I think that the fact that we already got all the parties around the table is already an important step forward, even though we are fully aware that the process will be lengthy," he explained.

MEPs took national lines on the debate, with Polish, Baltic, Finnish and Swedish MEPs defending Georgia while Austrian and Italian deputies inclined toward Russia.

Belgian liberal MEP Annemie Neyts said it would be "regrettable" if the decision of resuming talks had already been taken "come what may." "Having decided that whatever happens, we will pick up the negotiations, even before the [EU-Russia] summit, I don't know whether that is showing the greatest of diplomatic skills," she said. But Dutch socialist Jan Marinus Wiersma urged the EU to be "non-confrontational."

Eastern European hearts

Strong divisions on the subject between post-Communist EU states and old Europe also exist at diplomatic level in the run-up to the 10 November foreign ministers debate, with some eastern countries even calling for the EU-Russia summit to be called off over Russia's non compliance with peace accords.

"Do we want the Nice council to be remembered in the heart of eastern Europe as another day when Europe rewarded Russian revisionism and aggression? Is this the leadership Mr Sarkozy wants to show us?" a senior diplomat from one of the post-Communist EU countries told EUobserver, saying the EU would create a "dangerous precedent" if it "legitimised" Russia's occupation of Georgia by restarting treaty negotiations.

"The French presidency wants to celebrate success on all fronts. But we in the east are fed up with paying the price for those who play games in the West. We've been paying for the last 60 years and it cost us a lot of lives."

But a Belgian diplomat underlined that "negotiations on such an agreement [the EU-Russia partnership treaty] should not be seen as a present we give to Russia. It's of interest to the whole of the EU."

[Source: Euobserver, Strasbourg, 22oct08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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