Will warm weather stiffen European spines?
When the people who run the Western world go on holiday, bad things happen in eastern Europe. Last August Russia invaded Georgia. Over Christmas its gas spat with Ukraine left millions of European consumers shivering (from nerves, if not real cold). Easter (on the western Christian calendar) brought violent protests against ballot-rigging in Moldova.
What upsets this summer may bring can only be guessed at. A new war in Georgia is always possible. Crimea remains a combustible mixture of incompatible military and ethnic interests. The Kremlin's relations with the once-docile regime in Belarus are uncommonly icy. Your columnist will be keeping his BlackBerry fully charged and close by the poolside.
Whatever the summer crisis may be, it seems pretty clear that it will meet a crisper response from America than from the European Union. One example of that came this week when Barack Obama (presumably fairly busy with Iran, North Korea, health-care reform and other trifles) found time for an unscheduled meeting with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia. That is partly a reward for the Estonians' largely unsung service in Afghanistan (its soldiers get maimed and killed while most NATO warriors either stay away or shirk conflict). It also reflects the personal profile of the waspish and brainy Mr Ilves, America's favourite east European politician. But it was also a coded message to Moscow: the "reset button" may be a useful gimmick to get talks going on issues such as nuclear weapons. But it does not represent any wavering in American support for the frontline states on NATO's eastern border.
America's attention to detail contrasts with the rather feeble efforts that the European Union has been making in the region. An insightful new paper by the European Council on Foreign Relations (EFCR), a think-tank, shows how the EU is complacently frittering away its advantages and losing out to Russia in the countries of the new "Eastern Partnership"—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
On paper, the EU's position should be invincible. It trades more with five of the six countries (Belarus is the exception) than Russia does. That is a big shift from the days when the Kremlin dominated the ex-Soviet economic space. The EU's freedom and prosperity give it a lot of soft power too: even a distant prospect of membership counts for a lot more than the tangled embrace of Kremlin-run projects such as the still abortive Eurasian Economic Community or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Belarus has flounced away from an important CSTO summit meeting amid a bitter row about new Russian barriers to its food exports.
Yet the Eastern Partnership is faring poorly. Launched by the crippled Czech presidency at the Prague summit last May, the new programme is struggling to make an impact. From the big EU countries, only Angela Merkel bothered to show up at its birth. And Germany was among the countries that insisted that the most vital ingredient in the package—liberalisation of visas—was diluted almost to the point of meaninglessness.
The paper's authors argue that while the EU fiddles on the sidelines, the six countries remain badly run, stricken by economic downturns, and under constant pressure from Russia. To take just one example, Russian media, particularly television, is hugely popular, and strongly pushes the Kremlin world view. European media, by contrast, make a negligible impact. When crises erupt, the EU's response is belated and feeble. The ECFR wants the EU to appoint high-level envoys with real clout to spend serious time and energy dealing with the region. When they are not on their holidays, that is.
Europe.view column from Economist.com Jun 18th 2009