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EU: Brussels Prepares To Sharpen Policy On Russia

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Commission today released a set of proposals to streamline the EU's relations with Russia. The paper, which will now be discussed by the bloc's member states, says the EU must in future define its interests more clearly and coherently, speak "with one voice," and -- if necessary -- start linking different issues to more effectively promote its goals. The commission also says human rights -- and particularly the situation in Chechnya -- must acquire greater prominence on the EU's agenda.

Brussels, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is an open secret in Brussels that the EU-Russia relationship is in trouble. While the EU recognizes Russia as a key partner both in global and regional terms, the bloc has struggled to promote its own goals in the partnership.

The low point came late last year at the EU-Russia summit in Rome, where Moscow skillfully exploited differences between the bloc's member states, thwarting most advances sought by the EU.

The Rome debacle set in motion a drive within the bloc for a reassessment of its relationship with Russia, of which the commission paper is the first fruit. A parallel exercise is under way among the bloc's member states, who will have the final say on any policy decisions.

Diego de Ojeda is a European Commission spokesman for external relations. This morning, he offered RFE/RL the following summary of the present state of the EU-Russia partnership: "The communication tries to identify a number of things that are not working or are not working sufficiently well in EU-Russia relations. Some of these things are pertinent to the commission, because we have too many departments dealing with Russia, so we need to coordinate better. Some of the aspects refer to coordination between the member states and the [EU] presidency and the [EU] high representative [for foreign policy Javier] Solana, and the commission -- we need to have a more coherent and more clear views expressed by the EU. And some, frankly, refer to some imprecision and lack of results that we also identify as being the responsibility of Russia."

"[In] a number of areas, where we remain at a declaratory level, including when we refer to shared values, we should make it more precise and tell the Russians exactly what we think our common values mean."
The European Commission paper lists a number of important EU interests. Russia is described as a key global actor, not least because it holds a seat on the UN Security Council. It plays a significant role in the EU's "new neighborhood," the stability of which is of great importance for the bloc. Russia is also a vital source of oil and gas for the EU.

Yet, the document says, relations have come under "increasing strain." Russia has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, it continues to resist EU requests on Siberian overflight rights, and has threatened to block the extension of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU to the 10 new member states.

The paper says Moscow has also adopted an "assertive" stance toward a "number of acceding countries" -- notably Estonia and Latvia over their Russian-speaking minorities -- as well as its ex-Soviet neighbors. Questions over the fairness of the State Duma elections last December, and continuing human rights violations, are also mentioned.

An Irish presidency paper, seen by RFE/RL and currently being discussed by the member states, offers a comprehensive list of Russian "priorities." These include accession to the World Trade Organization on its own terms; a relaxation of visa requirements; frequent summits with the participation of all 25 EU member states; "decision sharing" in the EU's defense project; "minimum EU involvement" in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union; no EU "commentary" on internal Russian affairs; and compensation for the negative effects of EU enlargement.

To effectively advance its own agenda in the face of these clearly formulated Russian demands, the commission document says, the EU needs to increase internal coordination and "make full use of its combined negotiating strength."

De Ojeda today said the EU's rotating presidencies should each, in turn, work on setting out clearer objectives. "We think that the European Union should identify a list of more precise objectives under each presidency, and that this should be realistic and issue-based, or results-orientated, for each [term] before the presidency starts," he said. "And then we should set [out] to achieve these objectives together with Russia, and we should not be shy in defending EU interests on a basis of reciprocity."

"Reciprocity" here is a reference to a growing feeling within the EU that the bloc should learn from the Russian practice of "linking" issues -- blocking progress in some areas in order to secure concessions in others.

The commission paper says such links should only be made between "related" issues, and goes on to list a few. Among them are the possibility of offering Russia trade preferences for the extension of the PCA to the new member states, a certain easing of visa restrictions in return for a readmission agreement on illegal immigrants, and increased defense cooperation with Russia in exchange for Moscow's help in resolving the conflicts in Moldova and the South Caucasus.

De Ojeda today said human rights concerns will also take on greater prominence. "[In] a number of areas, where we remain at a declaratory level, including when we refer to shared values, we should make it more precise and tell the Russians exactly what we think our common values mean," he said. "That applies to human rights, the rule of law and, of course, that applies to media freedom, or in the context of media freedom, and in Chechnya, in particular."

De Ojeda said the EU should insist on unfettered access for humanitarian aid agencies to Chechnya and demand the prosecution of human rights violations so that "immunity is not an option."

Today's European Commission document also calls for a clarification of EU strategies toward the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. It says the bloc should engage the newly independent states "on the basis of its own strategic objectives," cooperating with Russia "whenever possible."