Leading Article: A last chance for Russia to come in from the cold

A divided European Union has played a weak hand with skill
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To assemble leaders of all 27 members of the European Union is difficult enough at the best of times, but that all of them turned up in Brussels on the first Monday in September – the first day of the new political term – offered a pointed, and commendable, show of unity. Even if the small print of a statement was always going to be more difficult to agree, there was at least consensus that a meeting at summit level was necessary and important. Quite rightly, the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia was seen as something on which the European Union needed to take a common position.

The statement, when it was finally released, bore signs of compromise, but perhaps fewer than either those advocating the sternest possible treatment of Russia or those preferring to tread more softly had feared. Some will be disappointed that strong words are not yet to be matched by actions, but there was clear conditionality. This was a sharp warning to Russia about not going further than previously agreed in the six-point plan that President Dmitry Medvedev had signed up to. This was wise. The emphasis at this point should be about making sure both sides keep to their existing commitments.

The plan mediated by President Sarkozy two weeks ago provided the basis for an end to hostilities and a start to negotiations. By subsequently recognising the self-declared independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before talks could take place, Russia changed the facts on the ground, just as Georgia had tried – and failed – to do by shelling South Ossetia. Reversing this recognition will be hard, if not impossible, but it should not be beyond the bounds of possibility to check that both Russia and Georgia are observing the terms of the ceasefire. It is to be hoped that both sides will agree to receive the proposed EU envoy.

Everything else decided depends on the findings of this mission. This also makes sense, given the accusations and counter-accusations that have been flying between Moscow and Tbilisi. Just as Russia appears to have taken liberties with the definition of withdrawal, so Georgia's claims about Russian positions have at times appeared exaggerated. The most urgent requirement is for third-party verification. It is foolish to threaten sanctions, as some had wanted, before all the facts are established.

It will be said that the EU holds a weak hand in relations with Russia – which is in many respects true – but that makes it all the more important not to overplay it. EU membership for Georgia is not something that can, or should, be promised as a political gesture. Nato membership is not within its gift. Approving generous aid to Georgia for reconstruction, on the other hand, and co-ordinating an aid effort, is something that the Europeans can do. Along with a promise to consider a free trade area and a more relaxed visa regime, it sends a message of solidarity, if not as forceful a message as Georgia might have wished.

For Russia, the message from Brussels is that relations are at a "crossroads" and that Moscow must choose between honouring its commitments or "isolation". Among the distinctly mixed recent signals from Moscow can be detected a desire not to allow relations with the West to deteriorate further. While postponing the start of talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement, but delaying further action, the EU has given the Kremlin a chance to prove that it, too, sees something worth salvaging from the relationship.