Defying most predictions, European Union foreign ministers yesterday resisted stiff internal pressure for further concessions to Russia over access to Kaliningrad after enlargement. The ministers finally settled on a common position that retains the central elements of the earlier European Commission compromise proposal but makes it clear that no deals will be cut over the heads of candidate countries.
Brussels, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After a day of intense talks, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday set out their terms for negotiations with Russia over transit between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia after enlargement.
The new common position follows the core elements of a European Commission compromise proposal unveiled two weeks ago. That proposal offers Russia's frequent travelers to and from Kaliningrad easy-to-obtain "Kaliningrad passes" and establishes that the EU should accept internal Russian passports until the end of 2004. The proposal also suggests the EU should look into the possibility of setting up high-speed, nonstop trains allowing visa-free travel between Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave via Lithuania.
EU diplomats said France, Italy, Spain, and Greece had argued for even more accommodating terms. Russian sources told RFE/RL this came after intense Russian lobbying, which culminated in a phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, over the weekend.
Speaking on behalf of the EU's current presidency, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said last night that, although Russia's concerns must be addressed, any solution must respect existing EU law and be acceptable to the new member states, among them Lithuania.
Moeller said any solution "should be consistent with the acquis [EU law], not create obstacles to the accession of the candidate countries to [the EU's] Schengen [visa regime], and have the agreement of the candidate countries concerned."
The new EU negotiating position says the bloc will stick to the commission's offer of a "facilitated transit document," or Kaliningrad pass, to frequent Russian travelers, despite the rejection of the idea by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 27 September. While visiting Russia's border with Finland, Kasyanov said the Kaliningrad pass is unacceptable to Russia, as it merely presented a visa requirement in a new guise.
Yesterday's agreement rejects demands by France and others that the EU undertake a feasibility study on a high-speed train link before Lithuania joins the EU. The Lithuanian government has repeatedly rejected the idea, saying it can only be discussed after enlargement.
Nor does the document incorporate the French demand that no deadline be set for the EU's acceptance of the Russian internal passport as a valid transit document.
Finally, the EU's common position also explicitly rejects a link that France and other southern European countries sought to establish between the talks on Kaliningrad and an eventual dropping of the EU visa requirement for all Russian citizens.
One EU source suggested to RFE/RL that France, along with its allies, had played a diplomatic "game of poker" -- and lost. Another EU diplomat said the turnabout followed "very clear language" from the Swedish and Finnish ministers opposing excessive concessions, stressing that their countries are much "closer to the problems" than other EU members.
Apart from resisting Russian pressure for further easing the EU position, yesterday's foreign ministers' statement makes it unequivocally clear that any eventual transit measures must be approved by Lithuania. This affirmation is something that appeared to be largely missing in the commission proposals two weeks ago, although European Commission President Romano Prodi said Lithuania's government had agreed to them.
Chris Patten, the EU's external-affairs commissioner, promised yesterday that Lithuania has a deciding vote in any deal."We have absolutely no doubt that these are issues for the sovereign government of Lithuania. They're issues which we want to discuss with Lithuania. We're aware of Lithuania's concern, and we're absolutely clear, and I think that paragraph [in the EU negotiating position] is clear, that the decision on whether or not, on the basis of feasibility and other studies, it would be possible to try the train option can only be [made] after enlargement," Patten said.
Yesterday's decision also indirectly contradicts Prodi's warning from two weeks ago that enlargement cannot proceed without a resolution to the Kaliningrad issue. The ministers' final communique says the eventual solution must avoid "taking any steps which might hinder the success of the enlargement process."