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EU, Russia Slide Into Unambitious Summit

  • Ahto Lobjakas

"How 'bout this weather?" Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana prior to an EU-Russia summit in May 2009

"How 'bout this weather?" Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana prior to an EU-Russia summit in May 2009

BRUSSELS -- An EU-Russia summit in Stockholm is set to be a low-key affair, with neither side holding out hopes of major breakthroughs in a relationship that stalled after the Russian-Georgian war more than a year ago.

The EU's gospel of democratic and economic reforms has largely been falling on deaf ears in the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Russia's overriding ambition of establishing a new "security architecture" in Europe finds no easy purchase in the EU, where member states retain full sovereignty over foreign policy.

In the broader context of the evolving EU-Russia relationship, the summit is likely to become a placeholder -- the fact of its taking place reaffirms both sides' interest in contacts, but little more beyond that.

Russia views the EU's Swedish presidency, at the helm of the bloc from July till December, with little enthusiasm. Sweden has been critical of Moscow's actions in its post-Soviet neighborhood, with Foreign Minister Carl Bildt drawing parallels with Nazi Germany after the Russian invasion of Georgia last year. Moscow first tried, unsuccessfully, to have the summit moved away from Sweden. President Dmitry Medvedev then let it be known he was only traveling to Stockholm under diplomatic duress.

The European Union, for its part, is distracted by a period of institutional upheaval following the ratification of the constitutional Lisbon Treaty earlier this month. The bloc is about to overhaul its joint foreign policy machinery with the impending appointment of its first-ever president and foreign minister later this week.

Looking Hopefully East

Looking for rays of hope, EU officials have in recent days seized on Medvedev's November 12 state-of-the nation address. Speaking in Brussels after an EU foreign ministers' meeting on November 17, the EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the speech is being seen in Brussels as very promising.

"I think after the very interesting speech of President Medvedev this week underlining, again, the intention to implement major reforms in the economic sector...we as the European Union, we are indeed a natural partner for that," Ferrero-Waldner said.

She said the helping Russia diversify its economy is in the EU's own self-interest. The bloc also has a "lot of experience and know how," she said, which could prove useful to Russia.

The EU is keen to incorporate reforms into a broad strategic partnership agreement it is negotiating with Russia.

But Russia's recent track record has been anything but encouraging. In particular, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's determination to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a single customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus has drawn criticism from Brussels.

Russian WTO entry is seen as a crucial step towards forcing internationally accepted rules on the country.

Speaking in Brussels on November 17, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt complained that Medvedev had appeared to gloss over that important theme.

"The difficulty that we have there is, of course, [the World Trade Organization]," Bildt said. "And although President Medvedev said a number of interesting things in his policy speech the other day, I was struck by the fact that the WTO wasn't even mentioned. Clearly, that might mean something -- that's one of the questions we will have on the table for the Russians when we meet them."

Power Play

Another long-term sticking point is energy cooperation.

The EU wants the new partnership accord to cover energy, while Russia does not. Meanwhile, another gas outage beckons despite the fact that EU and Russian officials on November 16 signed an agreement putting in place an "early warning mechanism." Such a feature is reportedly designed to avoid a repeat of January, when large parts of the EU received no Russian gas for two weeks as a result of a price dispute between Russia and transit country Ukraine.

Despite the apparent agreement over the "early warning mechanism," Prime Minister Putin has in recent weeks repeatedly warned the EU that unless it guarantees Ukraine's ability to pay for Russian gas, another stoppage in deliveries is highly likely.

Russia has also been unforthcoming on fighting climate change. This is a key summit goal for the EU, although the prospect of a global deal at a summit in Copenhagen on December 7 has rapidly dwindled in recent days.

Russia's summit emphases appear distinctly different from those of the EU. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko highlighted visa-free travel and security cooperation in remarks made in Moscow on November 17.

"At the summit in Stockholm, Russia is going to focus on long-term aspects of EU-Russian cooperation, such as visa-free travel, cooperation in crisis resolution, and strengthening our energy cooperation," Nesterenko said.

But for the EU, abolishing visa's for Russian travelers is a long-term goal at best.

Security cooperation, on the other hand, remains the preserve of its individual member states.

Thus the EU delegation headed by the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso can say little on Afghanistan in Stockholm on November 18.

The issue dominated various EU ministerial meetings in Brussels earlier this week, and Russia is an important regional variable, but most EU member states, to the extent that they coordinate their work in Afghanistan, do so under the aegis of NATO.

Meanwhile, Georgia, although it remains a divisive issue between the EU and Russia, has been relegated to the status of a "regional conflict," to be broached at the summit alongside Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh.

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