BRUSSELS -- "Common interests" have become buzzwords for the EU as it attempts to get its relationship with Russia off he ground again after some difficult years.
The change in tack appear to reflect Brussels' growing recognition of Russia's growing power, and the realization that internal divisions within the EU have put a damper on some of its foreign-policy ambitions.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the European Parliament on June 18 that the EU views its relations with Russia as one of its top priorities.
"I think what we have is an opportunity to redefine this essential partnership with our largest neighbor, based on a number of common interests," she said. "Getting the EU-Russian relationship right, I think, is one of the most important challenges in European foreign policy."
The EU is hoping new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev can provide new stimulus to their relationship, seeing as his rise to the presidency coincides with the lifting of vetoes on EU-Russia talks by Poland and Lithuania.
Ferrero-Waldner underscored that launching talks on the accord is the centerpiece of the EU's Russia policy.
The bulk of the Khanty-Mansiisk summit will deal focus on the four "common spaces" of cooperation -- the economy, internal security, external security, and education and culture. The common spaces encompass issues as diverse as energy cooperation and human rights.
The touchiest issue on the agenda is likely to be Russia's relations with its ex-Soviet neighbors, which the EU is also trying to engage.
Ferrero-Waldner on June 18 warned Russia against moves that could undermine the territorial integrity of some of those states. "In the summit discussions on frozen conflicts, indeed, we will certainly firmly underline that Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected," she said.
However, the commissioner also said the EU is seeking a "nonconfrontational dialogue" with Russia. She called on Russia to assume a "positive agenda" toward its neighbors, but also appeared to caution Georgia to pursue a more "inclusive" policy toward its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Most of the EU's hopes for moving on in its relationship with Russia appear to stem from a "Financial Times" interview with then-President-elect Medvedev on March 24. Ferrero-Waldner called it an "important interview," noting Medvedev said he wanted to extend the rule of law in Russia and modernize the country's economy.
Charles Tannock, a British conservative who spoke during the debate on behalf of the European Parliament's People's Party faction, also found signs of encouragement in the interview.
"Nevertheless, we must give him [Medvedev] the benefit of the doubt in his helpful comments about improving the rule of law, human rights, and the fight against corruption, with the EU being more engaged in this strategic partnership and new PCA [Partnership and Cooperation Agreement] with what is still the largest country in the world, which now projects renewed confidence due to its mineral-resource-driven trillion-dollar economy," Tannock said.
The Socialists in the European Parliament also advocated "positive engagement," highlighting the EU's lack of leverage with Russia.
It was left to the spokesman of the Liberals, former Polish Defense Minister Janusz Onyskiewicz, to note that former President Vladimir Putin also attempted to assuage EU fears before he took office -- but failed to live up to his word.