Friday, November 14, 2008

Sarkozy bringing Europe back to Russia

It looks like the European Union is trying to mend fences with Russia.

On Friday French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who also currently holds the EU's rotating presidency) met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. That the meeting even happened in the first place marks a change of heart on the part of the Europeans. After the Russia-Georgia conflict in August, the EU suspended meetings with Russia until Russia pulled its military out of Georgia. Russia hasn't done that (though the Russians argue that since they consider Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent nations now, their troops in those places are not in Georgia so they have in fact kept their part of the bargain), yet Sarkozy still went ahead with the meeting.

Critics, mostly based in the US and UK, are calling it a sign of weakness on the part of the EU. Actually its more an acknowledgement of the facts that Russia is the EU's biggest neighbor and also the source of a lot of their oil and natural gas supplies, not to mention that more and more evidence has come out that contradicts (smashes, really) Georgia's version of the conflict being an unprovoked attack on the part of Russia. The EU suspended their contacts to protest Russia's "aggression" against their little southern neighbor, but if Georgia started the whole conflict, it puts Russia's actions in a different light.

But getting back to the Sarkozy-Medvedev meetup...if critics weren't happy that Sarkozy sat down and talked with Medvedev, they'll like what he said even less.

Sarkozy slammed the United States' plan for a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, something that the Russians are dead set against. The US has said that the shield is needed to protect Europe against the threat of missiles fired by rogue states, the President of the European Union basically said that idea is nonsense. "Deployment of a missile defense system would bring nothing to security in Europe. It would complicate things," Sarkozy said.

The other big news from the meeting is that Sarkozy backed Medvedev's call for a new pan-European security pact, saying that a summit to lay the foundations of such an agreement could take place by the middle of next year.

It's a real boost for Medvedev and is something that could change the face of US-European relations. Back in April, Medvedev first floated the idea of a new security bloc, the "Euro-Atlantic Treaty Organization" (EATO), stretching as he said “from Vladivostok to Vancouver”. Medvedev said that a new organization was needed to meet the challenges of a new world. But a new organization would also seem to make NATO redundant (even the name seems to co-opt the idea of NATO), I don’t think it was just for a rhetorical flourish that Medvedev decided to say “Vladivostok to Vancouver” and not “Vladivostok to Seattle”, it doesn’t seem like there would be a place for the United States in the EATO (though there apparently would be a seat for Canada).

It will be interesting to see if Sarkozy is serious about following through on the EATO idea or if he was just being polite and humoring his guest Dmitry by talking about his pet project without any real intention on going through with it. NATO has been the background for the United States relations with Europe for more than a half-century now; a new security pact that includes Russia but excludes the United States would mark a drastic change of affairs. Sarkozy has been trying to use the European Presidency to set himself up as Europe’s de facto foreign minister, could he try to leave EATO as his legacy? Is he willing to make such a huge change?
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