17th Jan 2019

Germany under fire for weak EU-Russia summit agenda

The EU's new member states have attacked Germany for tabling weakly-worded objectives for the EU-Russia summit, amid close-to-zero prospects of launching talks on a new EU-Russia treaty when Vladimir Putin meets German chancellor Angela Merkel in Samara on 18 May.

Poland's Ana Fotyga at an EU foreign ministers gathering in Brussels on Monday (14 May) voiced Poland's "reservation" on a German EU presidency document entitled "EU objectives for the summit," saying Poland is keeping its veto on treaty talks and that the "objectives" skirt around painful political and energy security issues.

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The German paper - seen by EUobserver - takes a hard line on Russia's WTO membership bid, saying its tariffs or threats to ban certain EU imports have created "major impediments" to EU approval of WTO accession. It also "stresses the importance" of solving Russia's blockade on oil imports to Lithuania via the Druzhba pipeline.

But on the specific issue of Russia's ban on Polish food imports, it merely "welcomes...progress" so far and expresses hope the EU-Russia treaty talks "will begin shortly," without any mention of post-Communist EU countries' fears that Russia is using trade and energy as political weapons to try and divide the new model union.

After one sentence on Druzhba, the document's energy section is mostly full of safe, conciliatory language on EU-Russia "interdependence" and on "improving confidence," as well as ambitions to set up an early-warning system on energy supply shocks and to get Russia on board with EU climate change targets.

The issue of getting Russia to respect UN conventions on diplomatic protection - in relation to a row over Estonia's removal of a Soviet-era statue and Russian attacks on the Estonian embassy in Moscow - does not come up as an official EU objective. But Germany has promised Estonia to raise the topic informally.

Most of the new EU states, as well as Sweden, backed Poland's critical line on Monday, EU diplomats said. "In this light and without concrete positive steps from the Russian side it would be premature to advance with the mandate for the [EU-Russia treaty]," Lithuanian foreign minister Petras Vaitiekunas stated.

The tense debate saw external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hit back with arguments, with Mr Steinmeier also planning to fly out to Moscow on Tuesday to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to help improve the pre-Samara climate.

"You could feel the fear of damaging EU-Russia relations," an EU diplomat said of the Monday discussion. "Ferrero-Waldner and Steinmeier kept repeating all the time that EU-Russia relations have big potential. They were really pushing hard not to make the summit too confrontational."

EU-Russia problems multiplying

The deterioration in EU-Russia relations goes beyond meat, oil and Soviet statues. Germany also aims to raise the issue of Russia's opposition to Kosovo independence, ask for more transparency on Russian deal-making on Moldova, query the need for sanctions against Georgia and voice concern about human rights inside Russia.

But standing behind the "EU objectives for the summit" document, a separate analysis paper on EU-Russia relations drafted recently by EU officials uses less politically correct language to talk about the same topics, as well as raising nuclear safety fears that do not feature at all on the summit agenda.

The internal analysis paper says the EU and Russia are "some way apart" on Kosovo, complains of "Russian support to separatist regimes in Moldova and Georgia" and criticises Moscow for keeping troops in Moldova in violation of a 1999 agreement.

The analysis paper refers to "widespread reports" of "enforced disappearances and cases of torture perpetrated notably by security forces in a climate of impunity" in Chechnya.

It adds that Russia's decision to extend the life of Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors near the EU border is of "particular concern" and blames "problems from the Russian side" for the fact just €2 million has been spent of an EU €150 million fund to help handle waste from old nuclear submarines and ice breakers in the Arctic zone.

The Samara summit will start with a dinner on 17 May evening to be followed by a discussion on 18 May morning and a press conference at noon, but no formal, bilateral conclusions. "There will be a summit. But there will be no miracles, there will be no negotiating mandate [on the EU-Russia treaty]," an EU official said.

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EU diplomats in Bosnia have voiced sympathy for protesters against lawlessness in the Serb entity ruled by Russian darling Milorad Dodik, after demonstrations in Banja Luka left one police officer injured.

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