18th Sep 2021

France and Germany fail to coax EU into Putin's arms

  • German chancellor Angela Merkel at Thursday's EU summit (Photo:

Fellow EU leaders rejected a French and German idea to resume EU summits with Russia on Thursday (24 June), amid confusion over their cack-handed diplomacy.

France and Germany had proposed a joint EU communiqué which said: "The European Council calls for a review of the existing formats of dialogue with Russia, including meetings at leaders' level".

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But the EU-27 adopted a statement which said merely: "The European Council will explore formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia".

It also spoke of "additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions" if Russia did not cease its "malign, illegal, and disruptive activity".

The EU suspended summits with Russian leader Vladimir Putin after he invaded Ukraine in 2014.

But France and Germany had suggested resuming them on Wednesday, on the eve of Thursday's regular EU summit, on grounds that US president Joe Biden had recently met Putin.

"As we have seen from the meeting between the US and Russian presidents, dialogue is the best way to solve conflicts," Merkel said in Brussels on Thursday.

"This [Russia] dialogue is necessary for the continent's stability," Macron also said.

Their 11th-hour proposal came after an especially brutal year, in which Putin tried to murder and then jailed his main political opponent, Alexei Navalny, threatened to re-invade Ukraine, and launched cyber-attacks on EU countries.

It also came not long after fresh revelations that Russian spies had set off bombs in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

And it did not go down well.

"I don't understand Merkel at all: Why and why now?", one EU diplomat told EUobserver.

"Especially the method - just to just come out [with the proposal] at the last minute. There was never going to be an agreement or a good result, only media headlines saying 'EU leaders clashed ...'," she added.

"This proposal almost looks as though Putin himself had drafted it. As a result, the whole of central and eastern Europe feels alienated. It's a nightmare," a second EU diplomat said.

"Macron wants a free hand to do deals with Russia on the Middle East and Africa and Merkel wants a free hand to do business with Russia," he added.

In the end, the only EU states who endorsed the Putin summit idea were Austria and Denmark.

"The EU is stronger when we speak together, therefore the EU should have a forum for dialogue with Russia as a whole," Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

"As a matter of principle, I'm in favour of dialogue ... therefore there can, of course, also be an EU summit with Putin," Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen also said.

Most southern and northern states did not publicly criticise Merkel and Macron, but some did issue warnings.

"Our actions regarding Russia have to be firm, we will not forsake our principles regarding Ukraine and Navalny," Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin said.

But the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, flat-out said he would not sit down in the same room as the Russian autocrat.

"I don't mind Putin meeting with the two presidents [of the European Commission and EU Council]. I will not participate in a meeting with Putin myself," Rutte said.

Meanwhile, Poland and the Baltic states raised a predictable outcry.

"When we see attacks - also hybrid attacks - against our neighbours and ourselves, it's hard to take up high-level dialogue," Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, alluding to recent Russian hacking of Polish officials and MPs.

"The meeting with [Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov and the [EU] high-representative [Josep Borrell] didn't have a very positive outcome for the EU," Estonia's prime minister Kaja Kallas noted, after Lavrov recently humiliated Borrell in Moscow with anti-EU jibes and diplomatic expulsions.

"There's the illegal annexation of Crimea [a Ukrainian region]. There's ongoing warfare in the Donbas region [in Ukraine] - these issues need to be addressed and then we can speak with Russia," Latvian prime minister Arturs Kariņš also said.

"The Kremlin understands power politics. The Kremlin does not understand free concessions as a sign of strength," he added.

EU-Russia relations were not like US-Russia relations because the US had "a strategic [nuclear] weapons arsenal", Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda said.

"This is not the case with the European Union. We're a region of principles and values," he said.

Summing up the discussion, Merkel said in the small hours of Friday: "It was not possible to agree that we [the EU and Russia] would meet immediately at leaders' level, but what is important to me is that the dialogue format is retained and that we're working on it".

"Personally, I would have liked to have taken a bolder step here," she said.

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