Monday

18th Feb 2019

Mogherini seen as proposing ‘business as usual’ with Russia

  • Mogherini and Tusk at the last EU summit in December (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

The EU foreign service has proposed lifting sanctions and restarting the full spectrum of Russia co-operation if it stops “destabilising” east Ukraine.

The ideas come in a four-page paper circulated by foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini to member states on Wednesday (14 January) ahead of “strategic” talks by foreign ministers next Monday.

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It suggests EU sanctions should be bundled into two packages: measures related to the annexation of Crimea and others linked to “destabilisation of eastern Ukraine”.

It notes the Crimea sanctions - blacklists of low-level officials and a ban on EU investments - should “remain in force as long as the annexation persists”.

But it says economic sanctions, on Russian banks and energy firms, could be “scaled down” if Russia complies with last year’s Minsk ceasefire agreement, stops interfering in EU-Ukraine ties, and keeps gas flowing to Europe.

The Minsk accords envisage a full-scale Russian pull-back from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

But Mogehrini’s paper is wishy-washy on the extent of compliance that would merit an EU reaction.

At one point, it mentions “full implementation” of the Minsk deal as a condition. But in other parts it speaks of a “selective and gradual” sanctions roll-back “commensurate with the degree to which Russia responds”, or in line with “effective and verifiable steps”.

On incentives, Mogherini proposes resumption of “political level”, or ministerial-level, meetings on Isis, Libya, the Middle East Peace Process, Iran nuclear talks, Ebola, and North Korea.

She suggests starting an “informal dialogue” between EU institutions and Russia’s recently-launched Eurasian Economic Union on technical issues, such as customs or transit of goods, leading to “establishment of formal relations”.

She also envisages: fresh meetings of EU-Russia officials on the “gas advisory council” and “energy permanent partnership council”; visa-facilitation talks; climate change talks; resumption of technology transfers under the “Partnership for Modernisation”; and resumption of student exchange and science projects under the “Erasmus” and “Horizon 2020” schemes.

In the “long term”, she speaks of visa-free travel and “resumption of EU-Russia summits”.

Hard sell

The ideas paper will be discussed by ministers but will not form part of the formal conclusions of Monday’s meeting.

It's likely to be a hard sell in hawkish EU states, such as Poland, the UK, the Baltic states, and some Nordic countries.

But Russia-friendly states - including France, Mogherini’s native Italy, Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia - have already said they want sanctions to “stop”.

For her part, German chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled it out unless there is full Minsk compliance.

German efforts to organise a Ukraine summit in Kazkahstan this week unravelled due to an upsurge in violence by Russia-controlled rebels and Russia’s demands to partition, or “federalise”, Ukraine.

But the centre-left SPD party in Merkel’s coalition has also voiced worry that EU sanctions, coupled with the rouble crisis, could make Russia more dangerous by causing an economic crisis.

Calling a spade a spade

Mogherini’s paper says on page one that “re-engagement does not mean a return to ‘business as usual’.”

It adds later that resumption of ties would be undertaken “bearing in mind the non-business as usual approach”.

But despite the rhetoric, one diplomat from the hawkish camp said her ideas amount to “a very bright and wide return to business as usual”.

The contact added the incentives cover “the whole spectrum” of EU-Russia ties and that pro-sanctions countries will require “very-well thought out tactics” in Monday’s meeting.

Mogherini’s handling of the Russia talks also irked diplomats when her paper was leaked to the Wall Street Journal one day before it was circulated to EU embassies.

Another EU diplomat said she broke protocol by not giving capitals a chance to amend the proposals before they go to foreign ministers.

Tusk factor

The EU's restrictive measures will begin to expire in three phases between March and July unless there is an EU consensus to keep them in place.

But speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg on Monday, EU Council chief Donald Tusk - a Pole who has signaled he wants to play a bigger role on foreign policy than his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy - said EU leaders, not foreign ministers, will decide on Russia at a summit in March.

“For the sanctions, we agreed [at December’s summit] that the best thing for now is to 'stay the course'. We will decide the next steps in March”, he noted.

“We have in this room different views about Russia and different interests with Russia", he added.

"But no one here, I deeply believe, will ever accept that a state invades and occupies the territory of another state or kills its citizens.”

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