Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

EU countries keen to rebuild Russia relations

  • Mogherini (top l) chaired her first EU foreign ministers' talks on Monday (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

Forty eight hours after Nato said Russia is pouring fresh troops into Ukraine, EU ministers opted to blacklist some “separatists” while trying to restart talks with Moscow.

The foreign ministers, who met in Brussels on Monday (17 November), in their joint statement called for “a withdrawal of all illegal and foreign forces” from Ukraine.

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They also tasked the EU foreign service and the European Commission “to present a proposal for decision by the end of this month on additional listings targeting separatists”.

Speaking after the event, EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini noted that the “main” point of Monday’s discussion was “how to re-engage in a dialogue … Russia is for sure part of the problem, but it is also part of the solution for the crisis”.

She said “sanctions are an effective tool, [but] in a broader strategy”.

She added that “many ministers” said she should go to Moscow.

But she noted that she would only do it “after checking if the conditions are there for the meeting to be fruitful … the decision has not been taken yet”.

Monday’s EU meeting took place two weeks after Russia-controlled rebels in east Ukraine held local elections in efforts to create a frozen conflict.

It took place 48 hours after Nato publicly warned that “Russia has again brought arms, equipment, artillery, tanks, and rockets over the border into Ukraine”.

But it also took place 24 hours after a long, behind-closed-doors meeting between German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Russian leader Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in Australia.

Eurasian Union talks?

Speaking after the G20 on Sunday, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said one way to “ease” EU-Russia ties might be to hold talks between the EU and Russia’s new economic club, the Eurasian Union.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday, he said “there were many [EU foreign ministers] who said it should be tried”.

The minister, who is due in Moscow on Tuesday, noted the idea first came to him on a recent trip to Kazakhstan [a Eurasian Union member], where he was asked: "Why do you react towards us like that in Europe? Why don't you first hear what we here in the Eurasian region want to do with one another, how far our co-operation ideas go?”.

He added: “One can make such an initial attempt without putting your own position [on the right of former Soviet states to sign EU free trade pacts] into question”.

This could be a way of "relieving a highly tense situation".

The Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, also said on Monday there should be “direct talks” with Putin’s new Union.

But other delegates at the Brussels meeting had little faith in Putin talks.

EU sources say the UK, some Nordic states, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic countries wanted stronger condemnation of Russia’s actions and to launch preparations for new economic sanctions in case Putin begins a new offensive in Ukraine.

One voice better than no voice

Polish FM Grzegorz Schetyna told press the Eurasian Union idea was “mentioned” by some delegations “but with no concrete details ... it was not a subject of today’s meeting”.

He said that following the Merkel-Putin meeting in Australia, some EU states wanted soft conclusions in order to “leave space for further talks” with Russia.

Asked by EUobserver why, given the Nato confirmation, the EU conclusions refer to withdrawal of “foreign forces” instead of “Russian forces”, he said: “We talked for over three hours about the wording of this text … in the end, we preferred to show that the 28 can speak with one voice, even if it’s not as spirited as we’d like”.

He added: “Especially since this was Ms Mogherini’s first [EU] council, we decided to accept the lowest common denominator rather than having no conclusions at all”.

Merkel: Russia cannot veto EU expansion

Germany has warned that Russia might try to spread its “sphere of influence” to the Western Balkans, while seeking new ways to make peace on Ukraine.

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