An emergency EU meeting Monday in Brussels on how to respond to Russia's recognition of the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be instrumental in confirming the EU as a force for peace.
With the United States taking a diplomatic back seat on the crisis and the swift reaction by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting as EU president, Monday's summit has become the union's first opportunity to broker a solution to a major international conflict on its own.
But the opportunity is mined with potential pitfalls and risks, not least of which is the traditional EU dilemma of getting a group of 27 nations to agree on a common policy. And because the policy involves Russia, the potential for disagreement is enormous.
According to a French government source, success will depend on Sarkozy's ability to negotiate and, especially, on the ability of the union to speak with one voice.
The emergency summit is the first such meeting called since the 2003 Iraq war. But French officials say that what is at stake today "is more important (than Iraq): it is our neighborhood."
Its aims will be to show support for Georgia, in the form of humanitarian and financial aid, and to force Russia to implement, "completely and without fail," the six-point agreement brokered by Sarkozy earlier this month.
This includes the immediate removal of Russian checkpoints on Georgian territory and the retreat of Russian forces to pre-conflict positions and allowing the deployment of perhaps hundreds of international observers, under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In addition, France insists that Russia agree to point six of the accord, international discussions on the modalities of security and stability of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
If Moscow does not fully implement the accord, one French official told the DPA news agency, European relations with Russia will be "under observation."
External and internal relations on a knife edge
All this must be accomplished without doing permanent damage to the relationship between the EU and Russia and without letting bloc-internal rifts on the issue sabotage a common position.
This delicate balancing act is being complicated by the possibility that several EU members may demand that the union impose sanctions against Moscow -- a step other EU nations are not ready to take.
A source in Paris said Friday that "the time for sanctions has not come," and noted that the countries that may demand radical action on Monday, such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are those most dependent on Russian gas supplies.
"We are telling these countries, 'Think of the Russian reply to sanctions,'" a reference to Moscow's penchant for squeezing gas supplies to underline its political agenda during the winter.
Divided leaders could lead to divided opinions
Another complication is the fact that a number of countries will be represented at Monday's summit by two leaders each of whom will represent different policies.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk can be relied on to toe the EU line, while Polish President Lech Kaczynski has said that the Polish and Baltic stance at the summit "won't be completely radical, but radical enough."
In addition, Czech President Vaclav Klaus will be accompanying Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek to Brussels, and both men have widely diverging opinions on the issue. It remains to be seen which of these leaders will speak for his country.
The summit also takes place under the looming threat of other crises in the region.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has warned that, after Georgia, "there will be other aims that one could conceive of being the objectives of Russia, particularly Crimea, Ukraine and Moldavia."
The next chapter in what looks to be a long diplomatic story will take place on Nov. 14, when Russian leaders meet with their EU counterparts in Nice. That is also, a French official said, a kind of unofficial deadline for Moscow to put the six-point plan into effect.
In Paris, this is viewed as being "of absolutely crucial importance."
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