August 31, 2008 / 1:10 PM / 11 years ago

EU faces tough test of unity on Russia

By Mark John

BRUSSELS, Aug 31 (Reuters) - The European Union will seek at an emergency summit on Monday to show a united front on Russia, but differences may emerge over whether Moscow should face consequences for its actions in Georgia.

EU leaders are set to issue a tough verbal condemnation of Moscow over the conflict in breakaway South Ossetia but France, Germany and others have blocked calls from most eastern European states for a tougher stance, including possible punitive action.

"We need a strong and sensible European role to allow a return to reason and responsibility," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said of tensions between Moscow and the West.

"The dangerous spiral of escalation must be interrupted," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.

However British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country has sympathised with calls from Poland, Sweden and Baltic states that Russia must face some consequences for its massive intervention in Georgia this month, sounded a tougher note.

"The EU should review — root and branch — our relationship with Russia," Brown was quoted by Britain’s Observer weekly as saying, adding it might be necessary to exclude Russia from Group of Eight (G8) meetings and review its ties with NATO.

EU President France brokered a peace deal to end this month’s conflict in South Ossetia after Russia sent in tanks and troops to quash a Georgian bid to re-take the rebel region.

But the 27-nation bloc has appeared on the back foot as the Kremlin has since kept soldiers and equipment in undisputed Georgian territory, and moved to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.

In a compromise aimed at showing displeasure at Russia’s actions while avoiding a direct confrontation with the bloc’s biggest energy supplier, EU leaders are expected on Monday to refrain from sanctions but say future EU-Russia ties will depend on Moscow’s actions in coming weeks.


That will leave a question mark over a proposed new partnership accord between the EU and Russia, with some states arguing that a new round of negotiations scheduled for Sept. 15-16 should be at least postponed.

Diplomats said a final summit declaration would also call on Moscow to respect the terms of the peace accord, including a pull-back of troops to pre-conflict positions, and reaffirm support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The bloc will also pledge reconstruction and other aid to Georgia, deeper ties including a free trade accord and easier visa regulations for its citizens, and will signal that it is ready to launch a civilian monitoring mission on the ground.

The EU has for years struggled for a common line on Russia, with largely Western capitals advocating engagement with Moscow while others in the east reject that as naive and insist on a firmer hand in dealings with the Kremlin.

A number of European states have moreover signed bilateral energy deals with Russia, despite complaints from others that such accords undermine efforts to forge a common EU energy policy and wean the bloc off Russian oil and gas exports.

Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, insisted Moscow had no plans to use energy supplies as a political tool and brushed off suggestions that European capitals could push to exclude Russia from the G8 club of powerful nations.

"The EU is not in a position to throw Russia out from anywhere. Any attempt to isolate Russia would not only be short-sighted but unrealistic," he told Reuters, adding that the prospect of any EU sanctions was "highly improbable". (Additional reporting by Carsten Lietz; editing by Tony Austin)

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