• Putin will meet the EU's top officials in Brussels at the end of January (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Questions emerge on Germany's new Russia policy

15.01.14 @ 10:01

  1. By Andrew Rettman and Meabh McMahon

BRUSSELS - The prospect of German support for holding joint EU-Russia-Ukraine talks on Ukraine’s future is causing consternation in some EU circles.

The idea was first put forward by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last November, when he said he cannot sign an EU association and free trade treaty because of Russian pressure.

It was endorsed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin on TV.

But the European Commission at the time said No.

“What we cannot accept is a condition on a bilateral agreement to have a kind of a possible veto of a third country. This is contrary to all principles of international law,” its chief, Jose Manuel Barroso, told press at an EU summit in Vilnius.

A commission spokesman told EUobserver on Tuesday (14 January) that its position has not changed.

But Germany’s position is open to question.

Chancellor Angela Merkel last November already said the EU should hold more talks with Russia to reassure it that the EU-Ukraine pact would not harm its interests.

She did not mention the trilateral format.

But her new special co-ordinator on Russia, Gernot Erler, who was appointed last week as part of Merkel’s Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats, has explicitly backed the idea.

He told the German foreign policy think tank, the DGAP, in December that if the trilateral talks were premature last year, “in the longer term … one will have to include the Russian side in the mediation process.”

Erler could not be contacted by this website because he has not yet started work.

But the prospect that the Social Democrats will see Berlin give Moscow more say over its former satellites is causing alarm in some EU circles.

“If we go ahead with the trilateral talks on Ukraine, it would be a terrible sign to the other eastern partners, such as Georgia and Moldova,” one EU diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said this week that Russia is still keen to go ahead.

“This [the trilateral proposal] is a standing offer,” he told a meeting hosted by the EPC think tank in Brussels on Monday.

He noted that the EU-Russia summit on 28 January is a chance to reflect on how to make Ukraine’s potential membership in Russia’s Customs Union compatible with closer EU-Ukraine ties.

“The Customs Union is neither the EU's geopolitical rival nor a Soviet Union 2.0,” he said.

“What we face now is a good opportunity for reflection in those focus countries, in the EU, in Russia … [on] the best way to promote direct ties and links between the two integration processes,” he added.

The EU-Russia summit has a low key agenda on science co-operation.

It is likely to see Russia complain about slow progress on EU visa-free travel and on EU energy market laws.

But it will also contain a brainstorming session in which Barroso, EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy, Putin and their top advisers are to discuss “the nature and direction of [the EU-Russia] strategic partnership.”

Barroso and Van Rompuy last year promised to confront Putin on his “interference” in Ukraine.

If they do, Chizhov on Monday gave a foretaste of how the Russian leader might reply.

The ambassador said Russia’s threats to block trade with Ukraine were “an objective picture” of how Russia would have to defend its automotive and agricultural industries from EU imports if Ukraine signed the EU trade treaty.

He also criticised former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for doing walkabouts with pro-EU protesters in Kiev.

“This is a form of interference,” he said.

The Russian criticism is also likely to meet with fresh sympathy in Merkel's chancellery.

“I think it was wrong that Mr. Westerwelle visited the demonstrations,” Erler told the DGAP last month.

“There is one thing I do not understand: How can you offer to mediate and, at the same time, clearly take one side? That lacks credibility,” he added on Ashton.