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Outside View: Euro-Russian relations thaw

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Andrei Fedyashin
Moscow (UPI) Nov 13, 2008
The European Union has decided to end the diplomatic pause in relations with Moscow, which began after the Georgian-Russian conflict in August.

The EU General Affairs and External Relations Council met in Brussels this week. The council, consisting of defense and foreign ministers of EU states, has decided to hold the EU-Russia summit in Nice, France, on Nov. 14 and to resume talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia.

The PCA talks, which began July 4, were suspended on Sept. 1 after the Caucasus war.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations and European neighborhood policy, said the talks would resume not after the summit in Nice, but after the next meeting on the settlement in the Caucasus scheduled for Nov. 18 in Geneva.

The date is not important in contrast to the decision to resume the talks. What happened at the meeting in Brussels is even more important.

The meeting was mostly devoted to Russia. Lithuania pushed itself into isolation by insisting that nobody shake hands with Moscow. Vilnius was the only one of the 27 EU members to protest resuming dialogue with Russia.

Even such Russo-skeptics as the Scandinavian countries, Britain, Estonia, Latvia and Poland supported ending the pause in negotiations. Poland has decided to swim with the tide, as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski put it.

But Lithuania keeps swimming against the tide, even though the European Commission, the EU executive arm, recommended resuming talks with Russia before the meeting.

The recommendation, signed by Javier Solana, the EU high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, said the resumption of talks with Russia was vital for settling the Middle Eastern conflict, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems, and frozen European conflicts, and for tackling terrorism, nuclear security, stability and the financial crisis.

In addition, Russia is helping to ensure Europe's energy stability.

Until last summer Poland and Lithuania blocked the beginning of talks on a new PCA, which should provide the foundation for Russia's relations with Brussels in all spheres, from trade to culture and sports. The previous PCA expired in December 2007 but can be extended.

Warsaw had been infuriated by Russia's decision to ban the import of suspect pork and vegetables from Poland but eventually withdrew its opposition to the PCA talks.

But Lithuania demanded compensation for what it calls Soviet occupation and said that Russia cut or suspended oil deliveries to it, none of which has any connection to the EU.

Lithuania eventually was persuaded to withdraw its complaints in early summer, after the European Commission had given the green light to PCA talks. But in August it used the fighting between Georgia and Russia to make its point again.

This shows that Lithuania's opposition is rooted in something other than oil, compensations and occupation. It is simply against developing relations with Russia, period.

The evolution of Estonia's views on the Caucasus conflict makes an interesting study. Jaak Aaviksoo, the defense minister of Estonia, which previously had blamed the war on Russia, told journalists after the Brussels meeting that trust in Tbilisi had been seriously undermined and that some countries believed Georgia was acting unpredictably.

In short, the meeting turned out to be unpleasant for Lithuania, which failed to get the support of Poland, Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Lithuania was reminded that it could have dissenting opinions on anything it likes, because decisions at such meetings are made by a simple majority.

Ferrero-Waldner recalled that the mandate of the talks, approved unanimously, had not been canceled and so the European Union was ready to move on.

Europe must resume talks, she said, because some of its member countries -- referring to Italy, Germany and France -- are ready to sign bilateral deals with Russia. They have had enough of the Baltic governments' visceral opposition to Russia, which is hindering the talks and the development of trade and financial relations with Moscow.

The European Union views Russia not simply as a natural gas supplier, but also as a huge market for European goods.

Russia's trade with the European bloc as of late October grew by 37 billion euros year-on-year, to 170 billion euros.

The document signed by Solana also says the union must remember that an increasing share of Russia's foreign currency reserves are being converted into euros, which makes Russia one of the largest euro holders.

In other words, the EU-Russia summit in Nice is very likely to officially endorse the resumption of dialogue and the PCA talks. But the direction of the movement is unclear.

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's envoy to the European Union, said relations between them were not limited to talks on a new PCA. "We need a new basic treaty only as much as the EU does," he said.

Europe would like to change Russia's trade policy without changing its own. It mentions "Russian obstruction in trade matters," which is, in effect, a result of procrastination in admitting Russia to the World Trade Organization. Since Russia's compliance with such rules has not helped it join the WTO, it has decided to stop abiding by them -- for now.

Europe is unhappy about many things, including export tariffs on timber that allegedly are hurting EU forestry companies.

It also attacks tough limits on pesticide residues in EU meat exports as "disguised trade restrictions aimed at protecting Russian domestic production" and warns that new laws "could effectively ban imports of frozen meat and poultry into Russia."

It says the practice of forcing fishermen to unload catches in Russian ports is a form of "export restriction."

The European Union is angry over Russia's reluctance to sign an agreement ending Siberia overflight fees for EU airlines. The status quo costs European carriers 350 million euros a year.

It would be nice if the EU decided to resume the PCA talks, but this will be only the beginning. And as Chizhov put it, it is not the beginning but the conclusion of the talks that will be a breakthrough. Well said.

(Andrei Fedyashin is a political commentator for RIA Novosti, which first published a version of this article, but the opinions expressed herein are the author's alone.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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