12th Nov 2019

Van Rompuy takes centre stage at EU-Russia summit

  • Mr Medvedev (l), Mr Barroso (c) and Mr Van Rompuy (r) pose for pictures ahead of the Rostov talks (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy on Tuesday (1 June) reprimanded Russia over human rights abuses in a reminder of his powerful mandate on EU foreign policy.

Sitting next to Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at a press conference following a bilateral summit in Rostov-on-Don, the mild-mannered Belgian, who has in the past referred to himself as a "grey mouse," spoke out on the sensitive subject of murdered journalists and rights campaigners.

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"The situation for human rights defenders and journalists in Russia is of great concern to the European public at large. Another matter of concern, which I noted was shared by President Medvedev, is the climate of impunity, in particular in Chechnya and other areas of the North Caucasus," he said.

He added that Russia needs to "avoid protectionism" in trade matters if a new scheme to get EU companies involved in modernising its petro-based economy is to bear fruit.

He also pointed to Russia's violation of a 2008 deal to pull back its troops in Georgia to pre-conflict lines, saying: "We would like to see a more constructive role played by Russia [in neighbouring countries], including the implementation all its earlier commitments, especially with regard to Georgia."

The speech left European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a veteran of EU-Russia summits, in the shade, with the EU executive chief limited to talking about more technical economic issues. The EU's "high representative" on foreign relations, Catherine Ashton, who was also present at Rostov-on-Don, said nothing.

An EU official explained that Mr Van Rompuy is the EU's number one representative in protocol terms, with Ms Ashton's Russian counterpart being foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Under the Lisbon Treaty Mr Van Rompuy's primary role is to "chair" and "drive forward" internal meetings of EU leaders. But he is also to "ensure the external representation of the union," albeit "without prejudice" to Ms Ashton.

For his part, Mr Medvedev ignored the niceties of EU terminology, which describes the Belgian politician as "President of the European Council," and welcomed him instead as the "head of the European Union."

The summit saw the two sides launch a new "Partnership for Modernisation."

The initiative is short on detail for the time being, with co-ordinators from both sides to develop a "work plan" in the coming months. But the text agreed at the summit puts more weight on EU concerns on promotion of rule of law and civil society than Russia's ambition to get high-tech EU companies to share know-how with Russian firms with no strings attached.

Mr Medvedev made EU-friendly noises on the partnership, saying it will help improve energy efficiency and environmental standards in Russia.

He also indicated that Russia will join the World Trade Organisation separately from Belarus and Kazakhstan if the trio's planned customs union stands in the way of speedy membership in the free-market club.

The Russian President took the familiar line that former-Communist EU countries stand in the way of an EU-Russia visa-free travel deal for historical reasons.

"For us, there are no problems, we are ready to do it [drop visa requirements for EU citizens] as soon as tomorrow," he said. "There are some specific and separate positions of EU member states I believe. This is linked with our history, not with our real situation," he added.

Inside the EU, Poland has said it wants the union to give a visa-free promise to post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine at the same time as Russia. Russia's ally, Germany, also stands opposed to lifting travel barriers due to fears over irregular immigration, however.

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