BRUSSELS --The European Union appears poised to resume talks with Russia on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement it suspended to protest Moscow's recent military action in Georgia.
Leading EU officials in Brussels have long touted a climbdown in the standoff with Russia as the only rational choice for the bloc.
"Indignation is not a policy," foreign-policy chief Javier Solana observed at a high-level EU security conference in Paris on October 29.
France and Germany, in particular, have argued that the freeze in EU-Russia relations could harm vital EU interests such as securing energy provisions and the managing of regional and global security risks -- where Moscow's cooperation is essential for the greater good of the bloc.
French diplomats in Eastern EU capitals have in recent weeks lobbied governments to allow the talks with Moscow to continue. They argue that dialogue is essential if the EU wants to see a change in Russia's behavior, but stress that it does not mean the EU is returning to "business as usual."
Diplomats in Brussels say the EU's main long-term "punishment" for Russia will be a beefing up of the "eastern dimension" of its European Neighborhood Policy.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters in Brussels on October 31 that the events in Georgia have prompted the bloc to speed up its integration plans for countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.
She said Brussels wants to bring in the countries of the EU's eastern neighborhood "gradually, but more quickly than we thought before, towards the European Union. This is an offer that certainly will be on the table."
But officials privately say the EU's initiative, expected to be finalized at a summit in December, will once again fall short of offering the prospect of membership to Georgia or Ukraine. Instead, the bloc is looking at ways to extend to its eastern neighbors the maximum possible benefits of its "four freedoms." The four freedoms comprise the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.
Britain's decision to drop its opposition to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement talks with Russia, reported by "The Daily Telegraph" on October 31, has come as a surprise to governments in Eastern Europe. As recently as two weeks ago, Britain was firmly opposed to resuming talks with Russia at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, saying Moscow had reneged on the terms of its EU-negotiated cease-fire with Georgia.
London's U-turn effectively marks the dissolution of the British-Polish-Swedish-Baltic "axis" within the EU, which for months has advocated a tougher stance on Russia. Without Britain, one of the EU's acknowledged heavyweights, the group stands little chance of blocking the talks.
Sweden is said to be prepared to follow the British example.
Russia's detractors within the EU are expected to make their final stand at a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels on November 10. That meeting will finalize the EU's joint position for its summit with Russia in Nice on November 14.
At most, diplomats say, the EU could attach some general "conditions" to its offer to resume negotiations with Moscow. Once negotiated, the partnership agreement would need to be ratified by all EU member states -- and could yet get a rough ride.
The British turnaround follows closely a visit to London by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 30.
It also follows a visit to Russia earlier this week by Peter Mandelson, the former European commissioner and the country's new business secretary. Mandelson was the first British government minister to visit Russia since the killing in London of Aleksandr Litvinenko in November 2006, which was widely blamed on the Russian security services.
After meeting Russian officials, Mandelson told reporters in Moscow on October 29 he has hopes for a "thaw" in British-Russian relations. He also told the Russian daily "Kommersant" that the EU "has to recognize that Russia is especially sensitive when it comes to questions concerning its 'near abroad' and plans to expand NATO."
Mandelson is currently embroiled in a scandal over what reports in the British media claim were improper dealings with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska when he was a European commissioner.
Meanwhile, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown has over the past month enjoyed a close working relationship with French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the latter tries to steer the EU through the global banking crisis. The EU-Russia summit in Nice is thought to be a major showpiece for the bloc's French presidency.
Aware of the delicate realignments within the EU, Moscow also appears to have changed tack and is signaling a readiness to offer concessions. However, these will not affect its presence, military or otherwise, in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Instead, EU officials say, in a nod toward EU proprieties, Russia sounded an unusually conciliatory note at a human rights meeting in Paris earlier this month. In the past, Moscow has used its biannual "human rights dialogue" with Brussels for its own largely contrarian purposes, and was expected this time to focus on grievances relating to Georgia.
To general surprise, the Russian delegation for the first time responded to the substance of much of the EU's criticism and declared an interest in pursuing a deeper cooperation with the bloc in the field of human rights.
The Russian envoy was said to have told his EU interlocutors that human rights are a vital part of the new European "security architecture" touted by President Dmitry Medvedev.