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The EU's Declaration of Impotence

Russia's Dmitry Medvedev is flanked at the EU-Russia summit by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) and EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
Russia's Dmitry Medvedev is flanked at the EU-Russia summit by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) and EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
At one level, the proposal by the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, to abolish EU special representatives for the South Caucasus and Moldova is no more than an exercise in bureaucracy. A mere change in an "organogram," it signifies a redistribution of responsibilities among EU bureaucrats once the bloc's new diplomatic External Action Service gets off the ground.

At least this seems to have been the thinking when Ashton's right-hand man, British strategist Robert Cooper, introduced the plans to ambassadors of the 27 EU member states in Brussels on May 28 at the tail end of a low-key meeting.

The uproar that greeted the news in Georgia and Moldova has come as an unpleasant surprise for Ashton's staff, unprepared as they appear to have been for not having briefed even the European Commission's external-relations people on the plans. (Bureaucratically speaking, they had no need to, as special representatives are a member-state matter. EU foreign policy remains a many-headed creature as Ashton has been unable to mend the fault line running between the member states and the European Commission -- a community institution par excellence.)

Ashton's office is now busy drafting what are known in the trade as "defensive lines," pointing out that the EU's foreign policy vis-a-vis the countries in question will not change; that the European Neighborhood Policy will remain in place, as will the Eastern Partnership; and that all are offered association agreements leading, in due course, to "economic integration and political association" (a public-relations mantra crafted to better manage expectations among the eastern neighbors).

What is worrying, at least on the face of it, is the degree to which Brussels' bureaucratic horizons seem to shape (and limit) its conception of foreign-policy making. That the removal of special representatives, installed only a few years ago amid great fanfare and assurances of long-term commitment, could badly wrong-foot partner governments in unstable regions never seemed to enter the heads of Ashton or her team.

The partners' sense of relative self-worth was always bound to take a severe knock on learning that the Great Lakes region in Africa, to pick an example at random, will continue to rate an EU special representative. But that even that pales to insignificance in comparison with the horror -- felt in Tbilisi in particular -- upon contemplating what Moscow will read into the signal sent by Ashton.

Europe's New Landscape

But appearances can be deceptive. There are some very fine minds behind the apparently monumental incompetence. None finer at this point than Robert Cooper's own. Dissecting the recent woes of Georgia in the May 28 issue of the "Times Literary Supplement" (in a review of Ronald Asmus's book "A Little War That Shook The World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West"), the EU's veteran strategist offers a highly nuanced and dispassionate vision of that country's prospects -- and, by extension, of the limits of EU involvement in that part of the world.

In a nutshell, Cooper's argument is that Georgians do not have the right temperament to live alongside Russia as an independent (read unbowed) nation, and the EU can do nothing about it. "The European scene", Cooper notes with admirable candor, "has changed fundamentally" since the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. The three basic post-Cold War rules -- peaceful resolution of disputes, no boundary changes by force, freedom to join the alliance of choice -- no longer hold.

All the EU can do, Cooper says, is seek "relationships" -- defined as channels of influence on partners. Russia's is the defining presence on the European scene now, and short of resorting to U.S. and NATO protection, this is the relationship the EU must nurture, seeking accommodation. It may not seem right or just, but that is the reality, Cooper suggests.

There is no question that Cooper's cool logic of realpolitik is a defensible stance in today's Europe, if only because it faithfully reflects the prevailing instincts in Berlin and Paris. But the EU's entire communal raison d'etre -- and Cooper's own position as director-general for external and politico-military affairs and the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union with it -- will risk becoming little more than a charade if it starts openly treating some partners as more worthy of influence than others. Because that is what "the affair of the special representatives" boils down to -- wholly preoccupied by Moscow, Brussels is now giving every impression that it could not care less about what happens in Tbilisi.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL