EU envisages minimalist Russia talks on Ukraine trade pact
Low-level EU officials will hold two or three small meetings with Russian counterparts in a bid to convince the Kremlin that the bloc’s free trade pacts with former Soviet countries will not harm Russia's economy.
EU ambassadors fleshed out details of the new “consultations” at a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (30 January) after the bloc’s presidents, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, came up with the scheme at a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
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The format is to see around five delegates from each side meet twice in Brussels and, possibly, once in Moscow, with the first event expected in February or early March.
The EU is to field “desk officers” from the European Commission’s trade department, one of the lowest grades in the EU hierarchy.
The aim is to demonstrate that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine can sign free trade agreements with the EU without a negative impact on their existing trade arrangements - such as export tariffs or phytosanitary standards - with Russia.
“It’s being done because the Russians, at the summit, raised some concerns that the EU leaders were not able to answer in detail on how it’s all compatible and that there is no problem,” an EU official told this website.
The technical concerns are central to Putin’s justification of threats to impose a trade ban on Ukraine if it signs the EU pact.
Amid prospects of a new opposition-led government in Kiev, he repeated the threat on Tuesday. “We would most likely fail to pursue the current preferential [trade] regime for Ukraine if it signed the [EU] association agreement,” he told press in the EU capital.
But there is plenty of scepticism on his official line.
A Ukrainian diplomatic source told EUobserver that in the run-up to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the treaty last November, Russian officials bombarded railway stock and car manufacturers in eastern Ukraine with messages that they would be forced into bankruptcy if he went ahead.
Voters in the region are his main hope for re-election in 2015.
“What politician could ignore the threat of hundreds of thousands of people being made unemployed overnight in his home constituency?” the Ukrainian diplomat noted.
The EU official added: “I am sure that the Kremlin has plenty of people who can read [the texts of the draft EU treaties] and who have already studied them in every detail. So it’s hard to see what these new consultations will add.”
With Ukraine, in the words of its former prime minister, Leonid Kravchuk, on Wednesday, “on the brink of civil war,” there is little chance of reviving the EU pact in the near future.
But in the meantime, the EU is hoping to clinch treaty signatures with Georgia and Moldova by the end of August.
The two countries’ pro-EU governments initialed the texts in November.
The accelerated procedure is designed to limit the scope for potential Russian manoeuvres, for example, by the pro-Russian Communist Party in Moldova in elections in November.
The process takes a long time because each treaty - thousands of pages, or, some 5kg worth of documents - must be translated into all 24 of the EU’s “official” languages before signature can take place.
The EU official said there are enough lawyer-linguists to do major languages, such as English, French and German, quickly.
But he added that limited personnel on “small languages,” mean the whole process “can take a long time,” raising the risk that not translating the papers into, say, Maltese or Irish before Russia makes its move could have a significant impact on Georgia and Moldova’s EU future.