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Grappling with history, EU tests unity, new faces

European leaders take part in a group photo at the European Union summit in Brussels

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European leaders take part in a group photo at the European Union summit in Brussels August 30, 2014. …

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders meeting in Brussels this weekend, amid world war anniversaries, did not want for reminders of the continental conflicts that the bloc's founders meant to consign to history.

They took another symbolic step away from the Cold War division of Europe, in choosing a Pole from the ex-communist east to run their Council. But disarray on how to respond to Russia's moves in Ukraine, added to differences over reviving the euro zone economy, left them struggling to match fine words with the decisive action many want their new executive team to deliver.

Meeting in sight of a huge EU banner commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, and on the eve of the 75th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland, many cited that bloody past to focus minds on halting what Lithuania's president said was already "a state of war" with Russia.

"We know from European history the danger of the territorial integrity of a nation state being threatened and undermined in this way and we have to send the clearest possible signal," said British Prime Minister David Cameron of an agreement to review possible new sanctions on Moscow within the next week if President Vladimir Putin does not pull back forces from Ukraine.

But scepticism over the effectiveness of previous sanctions and concern for flagging national economies, some hugely vulnerable to retaliation if Russia cut off supplies of energy, left it unclear how far and how fast the bloc was ready to act.

"Clueless in Brussels" said Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung. It cited Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose defense of the sanctions threat was "We have to do something". That, the paper argued, was a sign the EU was out of ideas.

Months of familiar but unedifying horse-trading among the 28 member states for senior posts in the five-yearly shake-up of the EU institutions also left questions over their cohesion.

A deal was done that prioritized balance among various interests - Northern Europe and the South, left and right, East and West, men and women, big states and small - over appointing powerful, charismatic leaders. Those might overshadow national governments but give the EU a stronger hand in diplomacy and, possibly, inspire more confidence in a disaffected electorate.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a conservative easterner with limited English and - shocking to some in Brussels - no French, whose critics question his negotiating skills, will succeed polyglot Belgian dealmaker Herman Van Rompuy in running summits as president of the European Council.

Federica Mogherini, a 41-year-old Italian from the centre-left who has been in government for just six months, will take over from Briton Catherine Ashton as the bloc's foreign policy chief. The role was once seen as vital to making the EU a voice in the world, but strong national interests in Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere now seem intent on restricting its scope.

Mogherini will serve under incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier, whose appointment two months ago angered the British government, which views him as hostile to its efforts to curb EU powers.


There was division, too, over whether to supply arms to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, their guest of honor. Merkel called military aid no way to promote the diplomatic settlement that all member states profess to favor. Few of their half billion citizens are willing to risk war with Russia.

That left Poroshenko, and the likes of fellow former Soviet citizens in the Baltics who sympathize with his requests for weaponry, looking expectantly to this week's summit of the NATO defense alliance in Wales - and to the arrival there, via a symbolic stopover in Estonia, of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Poroshenko was polite about the efficacy of EU diplomacy.

Nonetheless, he said, he saw U.S.-backed NATO as the forum to seek help on bolstering Ukraine's security against Moscow - a reminder of the EU's long-standing difficulty in overcoming international scepticism of its capacity as a diplomatic player.

"The EU appears to be buying time, waiting for the arrival in Europe of President Barack Obama," wrote France's Le Monde.

While Americans have no more appetite for conflict with Russia than Europeans, Washington may find it less painful than the EU to impose more penalties on Russian business and trade.

Moscow was set no deadline for responding to the EU although Poroshenko said he was looking to the sanctions threat to back up his efforts to end fighting in the coming week. But opposition in parts of the EU to further sanctions leaves it unclear Putin will feel any great pressure of time.

Both Poroshenko and the outgoing head of the EU's executive Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, spoke of nearing a "point of no return" with Russia but offered differing visions of it.

Poroshenko spoke in terms of "full-scale war", if Putin did not pull back. Barroso described his point of no-return in terms of Russia's trade and other ties with the EU: "Escalation will make it impossible to re-establish relations," he warned.


The appointment of a new leadership for the EU institutions focuses attention on those individuals' abilities to address what Van Rompuy named as the EU's three main challenges: the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the stagnating economy and Britain's threat to leave.

Tusk, 57, said his priority when he takes over in December would be a common policy on Russia. His seven-year premiership has been marked by efforts to improve historically uneasy ties with Moscow, as well as with Berlin. But the appointment of a Pole whose president last week accused Putin of seeking a new "empire" could hinder efforts to come to terms with Moscow.

Tusk said it was important to have someone with experience of once Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe at the EU's top table.

The nomination of Mogherini was long resisted by anti-Putin hawks, who suspected a combination of her youth and inexperience with Italy's need for Russian gas would turn her into "breakfast" for the hard-nosed diplomats of the Kremlin.

She defended her abilities but also said she did not see sanctions alone as the solution to the crisis. As deputy to Juncker, she will also have a broader brief on the Commission and she cited fighting youth unemployment as a priority - a nod to the efforts of Italy and France to loosen German austerity policies in the euro zone in order to stimulate economic growth.

A novelty in Tusk's appointment is that he will run summits of euro zone leaders even though Poland does not use the currency, a move that may help bridge a gap between those in the core of euro-using states and others outside, like Britain.

Comments Tusk made about working with Cameron to address his concerns about EU powers and immigration from poorer EU states "delighted" the British leader - a contrast to a remark two months ago when he said the choice of the federalist Juncker would make it harder to keep Britons from voting to quit the EU.

Though Tusk felt obliged to promise to improve his passable English before taking the job, he made no excuse for a lack of French - showing how far Brussels institutions have changed since France pushed for their creation after World War Two.

At a summit heavy with history, however, Mogherini, from one of the six original states, turned from English to French, to quote the bloc's French founding father and stress that its fundamental purpose remained keeping the peace in Europe.

"Peace cannot be preserved," she said, citing Robert Schuman, "Without creative efforts equal to the dangers that threaten it."

(Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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