The European Commission yesterday broadly welcomed the idea of creating a new institutional framework for its cooperation with Russia. The commission made the statement after Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on 3 February forcefully supported Russia's long-standing ambition of creating high-level permanent links with the European Union.
Brussels, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission yesterday said it supports the idea of putting the European Union's relations with Russia on a new footing after the bloc's enlargement makes them new neighbors.
Russia has spent years trying to involve the EU in consultations over creating a new set of permanent institutions for bilateral ties. Currently, EU-Russia relations are regulated by the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) which was signed in 1994 and came into force in 1997.
Under the PCA, the EU and Russia hold two summits and one ministerial-level meeting a year -- a pattern common to all EU links with non-EU countries. EU and Russian officials also meet regularly in what the EU calls a "noninstitutionalized" format -- meaning the meetings have no formal agenda.
So far, none of the EU's half-year presidencies has responded to Russia's requests to put the relationship on a new, more permanent footing. However, both current president Greece and its successor Italy are known to support closer ties with Russia. As a result, the issue was formally raised late last month at a meeting of the Russian and Greek foreign ministers in Athens.
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, added new impetus to the process on 3 February during a visit Moscow, when he said the Italian presidency in the second half of the year would look at the possibilities of setting up a consultative council with Russia in Brussels.
Jonathan Faull, the European Commission's chief spokesman, cautiously welcomed the idea yesterday. "It is a very interesting idea and the Commission is aware of it, and we're always receptive to ideas of how to strengthen the cooperation between the EU and Russia. We have an existing institutional framework which functions well, but interesting ideas are always welcome to see how things could be further improved," he said.
Faull said it was too early to offer a detailed assessment of the ideas floated so far. But he noted that Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, attaches great importance to the evolving debate on the EU's future relations with its "new neighbors."
Commission officials say privately, however, that the EU -- perhaps more than Russia -- is more concerned with the substance and quality of its relations with Russia than with their form.
Officials say the EU is at this stage most interested in foreign-policy-related cooperation. However, the aims pursued by the EU are not necessarily as lofty as those voiced on 3 February by Berlusconi when he spoke of the bloc's inability to cope without Russia in handling its responsibilities in defending "world peace." Rather, officials say, the EU is interested in concrete cooperation, contrasting positive experiences in the Balkans with Russia's continuing unwillingness to influence developments in Moldova and Belarus.
An EU official told RFE/RL yesterday that Russia has drawn a parallel with NATO in its request for new institutions, pointing to the military alliance's decision to set up a special cooperation council with Russia in May last year.
EU sources think it unlikely that the bloc will make a concrete response to Russia any time soon, pointing out that there's a general wish to wrap up the work of the ongoing convention on the future of Europe first. They also note that the EU's common foreign and security policy is likely to remain an intergovernmental issue for the foreseeable future, with each member state retaining their individual veto. This means that although the EU's Greek and Italian presidencies may wish to press the subject, they can do little as long as Germany -- and also, crucially, the Scandinavian countries, together with the new member states from 2004 onwards -- do not share their optimism.