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EU: Finnish Presidency Meeting Considers Free Trade With Russia

Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen outlining the Finnish presidency's goals at a press conference on June 30 (AFP) The European Commission today held out the prospect of a free-trade area with Russia as part of talks that will be launched later this year on the future of EU-Russia cooperation. Meeting in Helsinki today, commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen also discussed the EU’s incoming Finnish presidency’s other challenges.

HELSINKI, July 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU today said it is seeking a free-trade agreement with Russia as part of the two sides’ consultations on long-term relations.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after his first meeting with the EU’s incoming Finnish presidency that this is a “strategic” goal for the EU as “Russia is a European country.”

New Cooperation Agreement

Barroso said a free-trade area would form part of the talks the EU and Russia will need to launch later this year as their current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement will run out next year. He said the commission has already asked the EU’s 25 member states for a mandate to start negotiating a new treaty.

“We are proposing [that] member states give us a mandate for negotiating with Russia a comprehensive agreement that will bring a new quality to our relationship," Barroso said. "In particular, we propose to move towards a free-trade area, to be completed once Russia accedes to WTO [the World Trade Organization].”

Barroso said, however, that it is “too soon” now to elaborate on the details of a possible EU-Russia free-trade agreement. The EU, and other leading Western countries would like Russia to complete its WTO accession agreement this year.

Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said today after a joint meeting between the European Commission and the Finnish government that he will give relations with Russia center stage during the Finnish EU presidency that runs from July to December this year.

Russian President Putin has been invited to attend an informal EU summit in the central Finnish city of Lahti in October, and Finland will also host a separate EU-Russia summit in November.

Finnish officials have told RFE/RL Finland hopes to come to a “political” understanding with Russia over the long-term future of its relations with the EU. Finland will also use its presidency to relaunch the EU’s so-called Northern Dimension, a policy of engagement with northwestern Russia. The policy has attracted relatively little interest among other EU member states and Russia has complained it is not being treated as a full partner.

Energy Issues

Finnish officials also say they want Russia to prove it remains a reliable supplier of energy for the EU. Russia supplies 25 percent of the EU’s gas, but made a “big mistake” in the words of one Finnish official in January when a decision to cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine temporarily affected EU member states.

Vanhanen said the Finnish presidency will give energy issues high priority.

“Energy is high on Europe’s agenda," Vanhanen said. "External instruments must be more effectively used in advancing our energy objectives.”

Barroso said today the EU seeks an “energy partnership” with Russia which is based on mutual interest and internationally accepted principles.

The EU is also looking for other suppliers of energy to reduce its dependence on Russia.

The Turkish Question

A key foreign policy challenge for the Finnish presidency will be the management of accession talks with Turkey, which got under way earlier this year.

Finnish officials warn of a “train wreck” as Turkey is continuing to refuse to recognize the Greek government of Cyprus, an EU member state. Cyprus has threatened to veto further talks.

Vanhanen said Turkey must normalize relations with Nicosia soon.

“Turkey should act already during [the] Finnish presidency and [this] is of course because the commission will give its report about the progress of Turkey already in October, and, of course, Turkey should get progress before that," Vanhanen said.

A key step would be Turkey’s implementation of the so-called Ankara protocol, which commits it to admit Cypriot ships and planes.

Both Vanhanen and Barroso made clear today the EU has no intention to mediate in the conflict between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.

Barroso sent a positive signal to both Romania and Bulgaria today, saying he hopes both can join the EU early next year. The EU has threatened to postpone the two countries’ accession due to an excess of organized crime and corruption.

Croatia was also told it may be able to join the EU before the end of the decade despite the collapse of the EU constitution last year, which has put a question mark over further EU enlargement.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .