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28th May 2022

Juncker defends EU sanctions at Russia forum

  • “The European Union would not be in danger of death” if the UK left, Juncker told Russia (Photo: forumspb.tassphoto.com)

European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker has said EU-Russia relations can only improve if Ukraine is allowed to decide its own future, adding that the EU is “not in danger of death” if the UK leaves.

Juncker spoke at the opening of an economic forum in St Petersburg on Thursday (16 June).

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  • (Photo: forumspb.tassphoto.com)

He said the EU is “united” on maintaining economic sanctions on Russia until it complies with the Minsk peace deal on Ukraine, which says “foreign”, meaning Russian, troops must leave Ukraine and that Russia must hand back control of Ukraine’s border.

“If our relationship today is troubled and marked by mistrust, it is not broken beyond repair. We need to mend it and I believe we can, but our path must begin with Ukraine,” he said.

“The next step is clear: full implementation of the [Minsk] agreements. No more, no less. This is the only way to begin our conversation, and the only way to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed.”

He said Russia's actions had "shaken the very principles of the European security order".

“Each sovereign nation must be free to choose its relations with its neighbours," he said.

"Such a choice can never be seen as an act of aggression or division,” he added, referring to Ukraine’s decision to sign an EU free trade pact instead of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

He declined to discuss sanctions in more detail, saying he would do this later in the day with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Death and Brexit

In his speech, he said the EU had “restored order” in the migration crisis and that its economic recovery was "on track".

When asked what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU, he said: “The European Union would not be in danger of death.”

He urged UK voters not to do it because it would “create a period of uncertainty both in Britain and in the EU".

"We have faced enough crises, we don’t need to add another one," he said.

He said the EU would press ahead with economic and monetary integration if the UK left. But he said past EU Commissions had “made mistakes” by issuing too many new laws and that EU legislative output would be cut back no matter what happens in the British referendum.

Juncker took a swipe at Russian-German plans to build a new gas pipeline, Nord Stream II, which has angered central European member states. “I have a strong preference for pipelines that unite rather than for pipelines that divide”, he said.

He also defended his presence at the St Petersburg event amid criticism from the US and some EU states that it sent the wrong signal on EU-Russia relations.

“I take the view that we must … talk with Russia - its leadership, its people. For some this may be a radical idea, for me it is common sense”, he said.

Eurasian Union

Juncker was joined in the St Petersburg panel by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Ghanian president Alpha Conde and by Tigran Sargsyan, the former PM of Armenia, who now chairs the Eurasian Union’s economic commission.

Ban criticised rising unilateralism in world affairs.

Conde blamed the EU and US for aggravating the refugee and security crisis by its intervention in Libya, which he said broke up the country into tribal fiefdoms and flooded the region with small arms.

Sargsyan said people who see the Eurasian Union as an attempt to revive the Soviet empire are “not informed” and that people who “ignore our existence” are making a mistake because the project is moving forward.

He said it had started a new dialogue with China and that it was “ready to start building relations with the European Union”.

“We would be happy to have contacts at expert level, at political level, at the top level, at any level”, he said.

Armenia had, until September 2013, planned to follow Ukraine by signing a free trade accord with the EU.

It changed its mind, one Armenian official told EUobserver at the time, because Putin “blackmailed” its president by threatening to destabilise the government and to take sides with Azerbaijan in its simmering conflict with Armenia.

An Armenian diplomat said at the time: “Perhaps our decision to abandon the DCFTA [EU trade treaty] was not too high a price to pay to prevent something similar [to Ukraine] from happening here.”

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