EU-Russia relations at low ebb, despite 'humour'

16.12.13 @ 21:21

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers and Russia's Sergei Lavrov failed to find common ground on Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday (16 December).

  • Lavrov. 'It was horribly polite,' Asselborn said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Two of the EU delegates remarked that Lavrov was in good spirits.

"There was lots of humour, as always with Sergei Lavrov," the Netherlands' Frans Timmermans said.

"It was horribly polite. Sergei Lavrov said several times 'I'm in a good mood,' and I have seen him in a bad mood before at Nato meetings," Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn noted.

The EU side spent the lunchtime encounter telling him it would be good for both Russia and Ukraine if Ukraine signs a free trade treaty with the Union.

But Lavrov said Russia would be "flooded" with European products via Ukraine if the deal goes ahead.

He told press afterward: "It was our common agreement that everyone should respect the sovereignty of each nation, including Ukraine, and … allow people to make a free choice on how they want to develop."

He also said some EU ministers backed his idea of holding trilateral trade talks with the EU, Russia and Ukraine.

His statement on "sovereignty" comes after Russia threatened to bankrupt Ukraine with trade bans and gas debts if it signs the EU accord, however.

Meanwhile, Timmermans, for one, told media there is no chance of trilateral talks.

"I don't see why the EU, when it is negotiating with a third country, should invite a fourth country into those negotiations. I don't see that as an option," he noted.

Lavrov also criticised Sweden's Carl Bildt for being "unprofessional" after Bildt told press that Lavrov is spreading "fairly serious misinformation" on the negative impact of the EU-Ukraine pact.

On the broader question of how Ukraine has affected EU-Russia ties, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said: "I don't think Russian and EU relations are getting worse. Russia and the EU are strategic partners."

But the UK's William Hague noted that Ukraine has put a "strain" on the relationship.

For his part, Asselborn, a veteran of EU politics, said the EU and Russia see eye to eye on international issues, such as Afghanistan or Iran, "but as soon as we approach the [geographic] zone between Russia and the EU there is nervousness, there are problems."

He recalled that in 2005, the EU and Russia agreed to co-operate on the economy, justice, security and science - the "EU-Russia Common Spaces."

He said they did it in a "good atmosphere" in line with former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev's concept of creating a "Common European Home."

But looking back at the unproductive EU-Russia summits of recent years, Asselborn added: "Today we feel, at many levels, that we don't see this good co-operation any more."

Turning to Ukraine, EU ministers repeated that "the door remains open" for President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the treaty.

But they heaped doubt on his intention to do so.

Bildt and his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, who masterminded the trade accord five years ago, said EU commissioner Stefan Fuele was right to declare on Sunday that he is freezing EU-Ukraine talks on reviving the pact.

Bildt accused Yanukovych of "doublespeak."

"In Vilnius, he said he was ready to sign in the near future. The other day, he said he was going to fire the people who negotiated the agreement. If you can make sense of that, of his policy, then you're welcome," he noted, referring to a summit in Vilnius last month.

Sikorski said: "In a situation in which the President of Ukraine says the association agreement is harmful to his country, there is need to pause for serious reflection."

He added that EU leaders will speak out on Ukraine at a summit in Brussels this week.

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