Germany calls for rethink of Eastern Partnership
The EU was wrong not to have analysed possible conflicts with Russia before offering the so-called Eastern Partnership to countries like Ukraine, Gernot Erler, Germany's new chief of relations with Russia and the eastern neighbourhood told journalists in Berlin on Thursday (30 January).
Barely a day in his new job, he said that being labelled as "someone who understands Russia" does not offend him.
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Unlike his predecessor, Andreas Schockenhoff, who did not shy away from harshly criticising the Kremlin on human rights, Erler says it is important to take into account Moscow's concerns - be they legitimate or not - about the West.
His appointment was a concession made by Chancellor Angela Merkel to her Social-Democratic coalition partners, who claimed the foreign ministry in the coalition government.
Erler, who will turn 70 this year, is a fluent Russian speaker and is seen favourably in Moscow.
A close ally of German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - himself a Russophile - Erler was the mastermind behind the idea of a "modernisation partnership" with Russia, or, seeking democratisation through increased economic ties.
Unlike his previous government roles, his portfolio this time is not just German-Russian relations, but covers the entire post-Soviet area, including the so-called Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).
He said his name was floated to act as a mediator in Ukraine, where pro-EU protests in Kiev recently turned violent.
But in the meantime, EU neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton have taken on the task.
"It is best for Germany not to seek a special role in Ukraine but rather to stick to the common European position and support the EU mediation efforts," Erler said.
With at least six people dead, several others missing and amid shocking images of "burning policemen,” who had been attacked with Molotov cocktails, Erler said the number one priority is to stop the violence.
He said the second priority is to quickly create a functional government because "Ukraine is on the brink of bankruptcy, which would have immense consequences also for Europe."
But, looking further down the line, he said the EU must reconsider its Eastern Partnership and why the Ukraine fiasco arose.
The protests began last November when Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an EU association and free trade pact, in favour of a Russian bailout.
"I am surprised that experts have been called to look into it only now - if there is a conflict between a Russian Customs Union and the Eastern Partneship. We need a solution as quickly as possible, because this is not only about Ukraine. Moldova and Georgia have finished the negotiations and want to sign the agreement this summer. How will Russia act if that happens?" Erler asked.
"We have to ensure there is no tension between the Eastern Partnership and the Russian Customs Union," he noted.
He added that trade is just one element of concern from the Russian side, but did not elaborate on the point.
But he said that if countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova enter a "deep free trade agreement" with the EU, as currently envisaged by the Eastern Partnership, Moscow fears that these markets will be flooded with cheap Western products, which would undermine Russian exports.
"I can understand this concern. I don't know what the solution will look like, but it seems possible and this is currently being assessed by experts,” he noted.