The EU must take a serious took at the strategy it employs to its East - the disunity on how to deal with Russia and the Eastern Neighbourhood is paralysing.

This piece first appeared in the EUObserver.

It is almost trivial to see the EU divided: on Kosovo, the Perejil island crisis, or the Iraq war. But EU disunity has been most systematic and paralysing when it came to EU policies on Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood, as this power audit showed. Every time a crisis erupted in the eastern neighbourhood the EU was often incapacitated because of two factors.

First, many EU member states hesitated to act assertively in the Eastern neighbourhood for fear of irritating Russia. For many EU states good relations with Russia are more important than developments in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova. This often forced the EU to act at the lowest common denominator. Whenever it could, the EU shunned meaningful action.

Second, EU member states diverged hugely in the interpretation of events and, consequently, in possible responses. As one EU official once told me about a president from the Eastern Neighbourhood "you can't save Y from his once stupidity". This entirely misses the point: the EU had to get engage in the Balkans not because it liked Hashim Thachi or Slobodan Milosevic, but because Balkan realities were threatening European interests and values. The same goes for the Eastern Neighbourhood. The EU might not like Aliev, Lukashenko, Sargsyan, Youshchenko, Saakashvili and Voronin, but that is precisely the reason why it has to get more engaged. And that is precisely the reason why the Eastern partnership is being launched. If Moldova was like Estonia and Ukraine was like Poland, there would be no need for an Eastern partnership.

Mediation as a substitute for policy

EU divisions have been visible across every single crisis in the region. EU member states interpretations of the war in Georgia and possible responses diverged hugely. Some blamed Saakashvili, others blamed Russia. The January 2009 gas Russia-Ukraine gas crisis was perhaps even more divisive. Some blamed Ukraine, others blamed Russia.

In such cases the by default EU reaction is to offer mediation and monitoring (gas monitors in Ukraine and the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia). But mediation and observation, however useful, is hardly a policy. Mediation can diffuse crises, but can rarely solve them; observation can inform policy, but does not amount to a policy. Norway is a respected international mediator, but I doubt the EU wants to be a big neutral "Norway" always mediating in the eastern neighbourhood. Its stakes in the region are much higher.

United on strategy...

The recent crisis in Moldova was perhaps a bit different. On Moldova EU seems more united than almost ever before. Most EU states (except Romania) had a rather similar interpretation of events - condemnation of violent acts by the protesters, but also of the violent crackdown by the government against opposition, media and NGOs. And EU reactions have not been constrained by fears of irritating Russia. The EU Special Representative was in Moldova from practically the first day of the crisis. There was a flood of statements and phone calls from Solana, the Czech presidency, the French-Czech-Swedish Presidency trio, the European commission and some EU member states, including France, Poland and Lithuania. Then two weeks after the crisis the Czech PM Mirek Topolanek and then Javier Solana visited Moldova (today). Though the problem partly was that EU statements and phone calls mostly came two days later than they should have (when most abuses had been commited and therefore could not be prevented).

(The story with Solana is a telling one. The last and only time the High Representative for CFSP had been to Moldova was in 2001 (besides a previous trip as NATO Sec Gen). For years Moldova practically begged the EU for a high-level, ie Solana, involvement in conflict settlement in Transnistria to match Putin/Medvedev's hands on approach to the issue. It never worked. The country had to make it to the edge of the abyss of authoritarianism in order to get Solana to Chisinau. Of course crises forced the EU into action, but still the irony if unfortunate. Bad behaviour seems to pay off).

The EU has not feared to intervene in Moldova even if this would irritate Russia (which offered president Voronin riot-control gear, many statements of political support and promises of a bail-out should relations with the EU sour as a result of the crackdown). EU intervention in Moldova was judged on its own merits.

... divided on tactics

At the same time, the EU is still disunited on the tactics of an EU response. Should the EU use coercion and pressure or reinforcement through rewards? Should it put pressure on Voronin, threat to withhold assistance, play tough and risk a Moldovan realignment with Russia? Or should it deal with Moldova through engagement - promise more (a new agreement with the EU, financial assistance to help with the economic crisis and maybe a push on conflict settlement in Transnistria) and "buy" a reversal of Moldova's authoritarianism?

This intra-EU dilemma is not solved. Some states (among them Romania and a few others) tend to bend on the more coercive side; others seem to be on the engagement side. Perhaps the end result will be a combination of both, as a policy brief on Moldova just published by CEPS suggests. And perhaps none of these strategies on its own will work. A policy mix of conditionality and rewards will be needed. The difficult question is what are the right proportions for such a policy cocktail?

Divisions on tactics are not uncommon on other foreign policy dossiers as well - from Russia to Iran and China. But still, this is a sign that EU policy on Moldova might be more emancipated from the shadow of Russia than on most other issues in the Eastern neighbourhood (a similar policy seems to emerge on Belarus). The EU is deciding what to do with Moldova on its own merits and whether this irritates Russia or not has been a relatively minor concern. Perhaps this is a sign of a "Moldova-first" approach replacing the "Russia-first" approach to the country.

PS: This does not fit into the text,but as Obama presses the reset button on Russia, EU Obs launches a new blog on the east: Belarus Reloaded.

Read more on: ECFR Council, Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.