Since the early 2000s, the long-term strategic goal of the European Union in the eastern part of the continent has been to establish an area of stability and security, based on multilateral cooperation and integration, via the EU’s declared intent of serving as an example and a pole of attraction for its eastern partners. The Georgian war of 2008 appeared at the time as the single most significant threat from an external actor to the attainment of this strategic goal. Despite this, the EU stayed faithful to its historical conceptual roots which are in the idealistic (Kantian) view of security as a shared practice and refused, on that occasion, to engage in geopolitical contests.
The EU response to the Georgian conflict
The five-day conflict in Georgia in August 2008 represented for the region, from the EU’s point of view, precisely an instance of the instabilities that the EU policy towards the region – the “European Neighbourhood Policy” (ENP) – was ideally supposed to prevent or limit. The conflict generated EU activism, which was visible both in the short as well as in the long term, while not deviating from the traditional EU approach to security in the region. In the short term, the EU presidency negotiated the peace agreement that took effect on 12 August and its six-point plan, and put in place a number of stabilization and confidence-building measures, including an EU Monitoring Mission.
The extraordinary European Council of 1 September sent a strong message of condemnation of Russia’s actions, particularly of Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also recognised that EU-Russia relations had reached a crossroads and wished for Russia not to isolate itself from Europe. Later in 2009, an independent international fact-finding mission backed by the EU produced a report on the conflict in Georgia, holding Georgia responsible for starting the hostilities, but also considered Moscow’s military response “beyond reasonable limits” and in violation of international law.
The EU made a long-term commitment to stepping up cooperation with Georgia (mentioning visa facilitation and a free trade area “when conditions are met”) and with its eastern neighbours, and it asked the Commission to hasten the preparation of an “Eastern Partnership” (EaP). A joint Swedish-Polish project on stronger cooperation with eastern partners had been on the table since spring 2008; it had been proposed as a reinforcement of the eastern dimension of the ENP. When the Commission presented its proposal in December 2008, the EaP had taken on new light; shared security had come even more to the fore of the new policy (with President Barroso remarking that “a greater investment in mutual stability and prosperity” was necessary).
The EaP was launched on 7 May 2009. It aims to define a new framework of relations between the EU and the six eastern countries of the ENP: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine. The EaP foresees more intense political cooperation and a new type of Association Agreement, the eventuality of visa liberalisation, of “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements”, and it covers energy security and increased financial assistance, but without making any reference to full membership in the EU.
The creation of the EaP was hastened by the Georgian conflict in August 2008. However, the war seems to have had little effect on the EU’s approach to regional security, and the EaP shows more continuity than innovation from a security and stability angle. Essentially, in the EaP the EU restates its belief in obtaining regional security via the establishment of multilateral cooperation fora, in the link between economic prosperity and stability, and in the power of the EU to act as a “magnetic pole of attraction and as an example for regional partners”.
Effects on EU foreign policy
In effect, fundamental changes in EU foreign policy induced by the Georgian war have been slow to materialise in the short term (apart from a temporary suspension of cooperation negotiations with Russia, which had already been revoked in 2009). In subsequent years, the EU has been absorbed with dealing with successive crises in its “neighbourhood”, from the Arab Spring to Syria, the worsening of relations with Turkey and the Russian destabilization of Ukraine: in a matter of years the European “neighbourhood” turned from the “ring of friends” that the EU had wished for to a “ring of fire”.
The results of the combined crises in the neighbourhood became visible in EU strategic thinking, with a re-calibration of the EU’s self-perception as a provider of security and stability on the international scene. The “Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy” (2016) replaces the earlier EU Security Strategy of 2003, and while staying fully in line with the traditional EU understanding of a liberal, rules-based international order, it adopts a more sophisticated approach to the EU role in the international arena. The EU would base its conduct on “principled pragmatism”, and the strategy seems to reject the idea that the EU wants to see itself as a purely “civilian power”; in fact, for the EU “soft and hard power go hand in hand”, as indicated by Federica Mogherini.
Perhaps the most direct lesson of the Georgian crisis for EU foreign policy was the need to re-establish within Europe the foreign policy and academic expertise devoted to the analysis and interpretation of the Kremlin’s actions in the security domain. The EU “communication on countering hybrid threats” (2016) and the subsequent creation within the EEAS of an intelligence “Hybrid Fusion Cell” and the setting up of a European Centre of Excellence in Countering Hybrid Threats, among others, appear as contributing to building this pool of expertise.
 Georgia obtained visa liberalisation with the EU on 28 March 2017, and it benefitted from a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU as of 1 July 2016. Ukraine obtained visa liberalisation with the EU on 11 June 2017, and it benefitted from a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU as of 1 January 2016. Moldova obtained visa liberalisation with the EU on 28 April 2014, and it benefitted from a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU as of September 2014.
The opinions here expressed are only those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Union, nor those of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)