At Friday's EU-Russia summit in Helsinki, European Union leaders must be hoping that they do not walk away with another diplomatic black eye, as they did at a dinner in Lahti, Finland, in October. In the face of intra-EU disagreements over Russia, President Putin used the opportunity in Lahti to vigorously defend his country's record on human rights and reject the terms of an energy treaty. EU representatives responded to Putin's resoluteness with a glaring display of confusion and inaction.
This time European diplomats are faced with the even more humiliating prospect of a complete breakdown in the discussions with Russia because of Poland's threats to block trade talks. While many in Europe will point to Polish obstructionism as culpable for this failure, this masks the truth that foreign policy decision-making in the European Union is almost completely impossible. If Europe is to become a genuine player in foreign policy, then it must establish a core group that can at least start to drive future discussions forward.
Nowhere has this policy been more called for than with EU-Russia relations. While Putin has of late enjoyed cordial relations with Germany and France, some newer EU members, the Central and Eastern European states, remain mistrustful of Moscow. In part this is the result of left-over historical suspicions and animosities, but it is also due to an understandable sense of paranoia in response to Russia's use of its energy supplies as a political tool and doubts about whether the other EU members are reliable diplomatic partners. This division is the result of a schizophrenic European policy towards Russia: on the one hand Europeans pour condemnation on Russian policies, while on the other they seem eager to court Moscow as a business partner, particularly in the energy sector. The inevitable result of this foreign policy rift, on Russia as well as other issues, is a Europe that punches well below its weight in international affairs.
Even before the accession of the former Warsaw Pact countries, foreign policy divisions were present within the European Union. To use some slightly clichéd examples, the United Kingdom has long cultivated an extremely close policy to the United States and remained somewhat Euroskeptic in its outlook, while France has traditionally taken a more wary view to the United States and a deeply pro-European attitude. The addition of the Central and Eastern European members to the European Union in May 2004 appears to have further enhanced some of these pre-existing tensions.
On the one hand, it is understandable that nations are not eager to outsource their foreign policy and have their own national interests to pursue; however, few would dispute that a greater degree of coherence would benefit the European Union. In part the current incoherence is due to the rejection of the European constitution, which would have streamlined the decision making process for a Common Security and Foreign Policy, through the establishment of an official EU foreign minister, among other things. But even given a passage of the constitution, a common European voice would not have spontaneously appeared on the international stage.
French presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a more realistic option for improving synergies, suggesting the six most populous and powerful nations in the European Union-France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom-work together closely on a variety of issues, including foreign policy. The success of this plan, however, hinges on not forgetting about Poland.
For starters, Poland's role within Sarkozy's suggested structure ensures that Central and Eastern European states are guaranteed a voice within the greater European community. While by no means completely representative of the region, Poland has already taken the lead among the newer member states by fault of its size, and the other Central and Eastern European members recognize that they are, at any rate, currently completely marginalized in international affairs. Poland shares many of their international concerns, and thus, they may be willing to accept Poland as their foreign policy champion within the proposed G6.
Second, the structure presents a chance for further German-Polish rapprochement. While the Polish government is understandably distressed by Germany's friendly relations with Russia, relations at a bilateral level between these two core European states have degenerated to an almost absurd degree. There are positive signs, and relations appear on the mend at the moment, but a solidifying of the bilateral partnership in a formal G6 setting would provide a convenient forum for correcting what had thus far been clumsy diplomatic relations.
Third, the proposal shows the world that the European Union is listening and accepting its new Eastern members, and definitively rejects President Chirac's invitation to the Eastern members to "be quiet" when they spoke up about Iraq in 2003. Poland's addition to the G6 grouping would create another formal link between Eastern and Western Europe, establishing a line of close communication that seems to currently be absent in the European Union. By obligating the Western Europeans to heed the concerns of their counterparts to the East-represented by Poland-the G6 may help to heal some of the foreign policy divisions within Europe.
Some may dismiss Mr. Sarkozy's suggestion as a French attempt to wrestle back the country's established leadership of the European Union. However, even if there were some truth in this claim, the implementation of the proposal would benefit Europe as a whole. In any case, within the proposed G6, the UK will serve as a countervailing influence to France, as it has in the past.
Sarkozy's G6 can function even if popular enthusiasm for European integration continues to ebb. After all, like the existing G8, it would not require an approval process or complex organizational structure to sustain it. The G6 would allow leaders of Europe's most important states to discreetly start to iron out differences at critical moments that they can then present to the broader Union. Who knows whether this organization could have allowed the European Union to avoid the diplomatic discomfiture at Lahti, but the opportunity for earlier consensus building would have undoubtedly been beneficial. Ultimately, if European leaders could stop squabbling among themselves, they might realize that while they need Russian oil and gas, Russia needs European investment in its inadequate energy infrastructure. Nonetheless, the proposed European G6 may not be able to produce a complete agreement on matters concerning Russia, but any amount of coordination would be preferable to the current European disunion.
The plan would not force the smaller EU members to merely cede their foreign policy to the six larger member states, but would rather informally create a forum whereby foreign policy would start to be debated by a grouping that is relatively representative of the broader interests of the European Union. While discussions would inevitably have to be held with the wider Union on important matters, at the moment, the unwieldy nature of a 25 member European Union is simply paralyzing the decision-making process. When dealing with Russia for example, the G6 may have been able to comprehend the Polish complaints about Russian trade restrictions earlier and saved the European Union its recent embarrassments.
Ultimately, it is a long time before the European Union will become a completely coherent foreign policy actor. The establishment of a G6 that spans the continent may at least start to create an internal motor that will be able to generate some motion in a foreign policy that is increasingly stagnant.
Marisa Morrison is an Apprentice Editor at The National Interest. Raffaello Pantucci is a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.