Whatever you think about the conflict in Georgia – and opinions about the rights and wrongs of it could hardly be more polarised – there is one aspect on which there could surely be wide agreement.
This fast and furious little war, with far wider implications, was an ideal opportunity for the European Union to show its diplomatic mettle. Countries the world over have been crying out for the EU to take a more activist role as mediator, where better to start than with South Ossetia – potentially highly dangerous, but potentially soluble, too?
In fact, the EU's first moves were positive, as international responses go. The French presidency of the EU placed the onus on Nicolas Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, to react in the name of Europe. Exhibitionist and interventionist politicians both, they made an admirably prompt start, exchanging their sacrosanct August holidays for a few rounds of shuttle diplomacy. Within days there was a six-point agreement, validated by the signatures of both sides. It was a promising start: a single message, activist diplomacy, and a realistic awareness of what was possible on the ground.
At which point everything fell apart, and a head of steam built up once again behind the rhetoric – except that this time it was not just Russia and Georgia doing the shouting, but their respective cheerleaders, which meant pretty much everyone against the Russians. And the EU voice of reason, as exemplified by the mediators, M. Sarkozy and M. Kouchner, was progressively drowned out by a different and more diffuse argument: not the small question of how to solve the problem of South Ossetia, but the big question of what to do about Russia.
The reason the focus shifted was that the east and central Europeans – who became full members of the EU in 2004 – could see the war in Georgia only through the prism of their bitter experience. For them, it was just another example of Soviet-style Russian bullying and a red flag they could wave at "old" Europe to illustrate the justice of their fears.
Now I yield to no one in my delight at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of east and central Europe and the death of Soviet communism. These "new" European countries are fully-fledged nation states with a reclaimed sense of their own identity. Visit any one of them, and I defy you not to sense, and share, their sheer joy at being able to be themselves. Given history and geography, their preoccupation with the perceived threat from the east can also be understood. In seeking not only EU but also Nato membership, they were defending their vital interests as they saw them. Their single-mindedness paid off.
The trouble is that while the "old" Europeans left past enmities at the door when they joined the EU – that was the whole point of joining – too many of the "new" Europeans saw the EU, like Nato, as a means of pursuing old quarrels from a new position of strength. Recent recriminations in "new" Europe about who did what under communism demonstrate how much is still not resolved. For these countries, the prospect of a new Cold War is ever-present quite simply because, for them, the old Cold War is not yet at an end.
In 2000, Jacques Chirac's fears about EU enlargement drew reproaches of condescension and worse. The official US and British view was preferred; that these countries would form a "bridge" to Russia. Over time, though, M. Chirac looks more right than wrong. Popular European opposition to the Iraq war was less effective than it could have been because of divisions between "old" and "new" Europe that were well exploited by the US. As Iraq faded as an issue, EU efforts to reach a realistic and mutually beneficial relationship with Russia were repeatedly thwarted by a chorus of "new" Europeans warning of the worst.
There are many reasons why the EU should review relations with Russia, most of which predate the recent conflict over South Ossetia. A mutual – yes, mutual – interest in reliable energy sales and supplies is one. Moscow's relations with the ethnic Russian populations living within the EU is another; and the permanent demarcation of post-Soviet borders, which requires a resolution of the so-called "frozen conflicts" such as South Ossetia, is a third.
That discussions on all these issues are coloured by the very particular experience of the "new Europeans" is a good part of the explanation why no solutions are being reached. Alas, that failure is now water under a premature enlargement that has proved more of a block than a bridge.