Sunday

29th Mar 2020

EU sets low expectations for Russia summit

EU envoys at a summit in the Russian Far East on Thursday (21 May) and Friday will voice worries over energy security and trade tariffs, but expect to come home with little by way of concrete agreements.

The European Commission last week sent proposals to Moscow on how to beef up an existing Early Warning Mechanism (EWM) to alert Brussels on the risk of future gas cut-offs, such as the massive outage in January.

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  • Dmitry Medvedev inspects an oil refinery in Khabarovsk ahead of the summit dinner on 21 May (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The current set-up, described by one EU official as "basically down to some guys calling each other," is to be put on a more formal footing, with the possible inclusion of transit countries such as Ukraine.

The EU believes a repetition of the January fiasco could take place at any time, with Russia itself warning that Europe should loan money to Ukraine to help it pay spiralling gas debts.

European envoys will also push Russia to roll back protectionist tariffs imposed last November as a reaction to the economic crisis. The so-called "55 point plan" saw new duties slapped on imports of cars, steel, milk and butter. Steep duties on timber exports to EU paper mills are also set to bite from January onward.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday said agreement on a new EWM and the launch of a dialogue on public health were among the summit's "potential deliverables."

But there is little faith that Moscow will budge on tariffs.

Russia has since November 2007 refused to even discuss the question of Siberian overflights - a system of fees that sees EU airlines pay €330 million a year to Russian carrier Aeroflot. The hard line comes despite the EU making air fees a condition for Russia's WTO accession, unlike the 55 point plan.

The EU summit delegation will be led by Russophile and eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who is to share a long plane-ride from Prague to the Siberian town of Khabarovsk with EU top diplomat Javier Solana.

Mr Klaus was chosen for the mission because of his good chemistry with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and has shown willingness to toe the EU line in pre-summit briefings inside the EU.

Any public statements at the Khabarovsk event are likely to mask the EU's deeper energy security concerns, however.

With new laws designed to keep foreign investors' hands off mineral reserves, lack of respect for private property rights and rampant corruption in most layers of society, it is becoming harder for EU energy companies to join Gazprom in keeping the pipelines full.

The EU foreign ministers on Monday said they are "watching" the new trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose company, Yukos, was seized by powerful Kremlin insider Igor Sechin five years ago.

But they said nothing about the trial of Semion Mogilevich - an alleged Russian mafia boss with top-level ties in the gas business and politics, arrested last year. "Nobody will ever really put him away. He knows where all the bodies are buried," one Russia analyst told EUobserver.

Listening mode

The EU envoys in Siberia will also be in "listening mode" on Russian plans to create a new multilateral energy transit agreement to replace the existing Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) and a separate, worldwide, security pact to overarch Nato.

The European Commission has already stated it will stand by the ECT. Some EU officials even see the energy pact proposal as insurance against an anti-Russian ruling in a current legal case over the Yukos break-up. The Yukos arbitration, based on the ECT, could cost an impoverished Kremlin over €20 billion.

In terms of hard security, the need for a two-state solution in Israel is one of the few areas where the two sides agree.

With EU diplomats in Khabarovsk mandated to urge Russia to pull troops out of Georgia rebel enclaves Abkhazia and South Ossetia in line with a French-brokered peace accord, Russia is planning to bring its own complaints to the table.

Moscow on Wednesday accused Romanian special forces of inciting riots in Moldova in April in an attempt to destabilise the Russia-friendly regime. "We want to ask our colleagues from the European Union whether they intend to take responsibility for what European Union members do," Medvedev aide Sergei Prikhodko said.

The modest achievements of past EU-Russia summits, which take place twice a year, have seen EU officials advise member states to scale back the meetings to just once a year in future, if Russia agrees.

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