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Putin and Barroso in public scrap on EU energy law

  • Barroso (r) said he raised 'specific cases' of human rights abuses with Putin in private (Photo: Valentina Pop)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso took on Russian hardman Vladimir Putin in an unscripted battle of wits about EU energy law at a press event in Brussels on Thursday (24 February).

Mr Putin, in the EU capital for a meeting between his ministers and the EU commission, began the exchange by citing chapter and verse of the EU's Third Energy Package, a bundle of laws which obliges energy companies to split up production and distribution assets.

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"This violates our common framework agreement, when it says that our enterprises are affected by this package while operating in Europe. We're talking about confiscation of Russian property here," he said, referring to an EU-Russia agreement from 1994.

Mr Barroso flatly contradicted him: "Thanks to Russian gas, many of our institutes work and our houses are warm. But we pay for it. We pay for it well. We are very good clients in the EU. Let me say very frankly, we believe our Third Energy Package is fully compatible with WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules, is non-discriminatory and is fully compatible with our bilateral agreements."

In a break with normal practice, where each VIP speaks once and then they move on to a new question, Mr Putin hit back: "We produce gas and we transport it. Why shouldn't we sell our property from the entrance of our pipeline to the EU?"

Mr Barroso had the last word. "I'm sure we will find an acceptable solution. But let me clearly say the following: We have adopted the Third Energy Package. For us and for the member states, it is now binding legislation," he said.

Mr Putin at several points tried to spook the EU with talk of high energy prices.

He said he had heard that oil could hit $220 a barrel because of Libya and that the Third Energy Package will see the EU pay more for gas. He also said gas will be more dear if the Union does not let Russia build its South Stream pipeline under the Black Sea.

Asked by media if the Arab revolutions could encourage Muslim uprisings in Russia's north Caucasus, he said he is "concerned" but quickly changed the subject and made fun of EU democracy-building in the Middle East instead.

"I remember not that long ago our partners called for free elections in the Palestinian autonomy. That's great. Good job. Then Hamas won, they declared it a terrorist organisation and started fighting it," he recalled.

He noted that Belgium cannot even form a government to illustrate why the West should not "interfere" in north Africa. "People in Russia love this country a lot. But it hasn't had a government for over 150 days," he said.

Human rights issues in Russia took a back seat in the press briefing. But Mr Barroso in his opening remarks said he had raised "specific cases" with Mr Putin in private.

"We expect Russia to respect its international commitments in the field of human rights," he said. "Respect for the rule of law is crucial for any modernisation effort," he added, referring to the Partnership for Modernisation, his own plan to swap high-end EU technology in return for reforms in Russia.

The main aim of the Putin visit was EU-Russia relationship-building. Both men smiled a lot during the energy law tit-fot-tat and said it is normal for partners to disagree.

The two sides signed a joint statement condemning violence in Libya and four documents relating to the Early Warning Mechanism, a protocol in which Russia sends the commission a letter when it cuts off gas to Belarus or Ukraine. An EU official said the energy documents are "nothing new, really."

Mr Putin and Mr Barroso have clashed publicly before.

At an EU-Russia summit in Moscow in 2009, Mr Putin told Mr Barroso he should not have talked about human rights in a separate meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr Barroso at the time said: "Human rights and rule of law are much more important than diplomacy."

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