Tensions high, expectations low for Russia-EU talks
Berlin, May 17: Germany has low expectations for this week's EU-Russia summit but Berlin and the EU hope it can at least halt a deterioration in Europe's relations with an increasingly assertive Kremlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the presidency of the European Union, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet near the Russian city of Samara tomorrow.
''This summit is taking place at a difficult time,'' a German government official told reporters. ''But if we want a strategic partnership with Russia it's important that we talk even during difficult times.'' Even if there is no narrowing of differences, both sides will get a better idea of each other's positions, he said.
A Russian ban on EU member Poland's meat imports and a row between Moscow and Estonia, another EU member, over a Soviet-era war memorial have soured relations.
''I hope the summit will highlight that, whatever our current difficulties may be, there is a wide range of practical cooperation ongoing with Russia,'' Barroso said in a statement.
He added that the EU was fully committed to Russia's early entry into the World Trade Organisation.
Other issues to be discussed at the summit include Iran's nuclear programme and a Western-drafted UN Security Council resolution that would lead to independence for Kosovo, a text Russia has hinted it may veto.
The summit should have its lighter moments. On Thursday evening Putin will host a private dinner for Merkel and Barroso after which the delegations will attend a concert together.
At a briefing in Moscow, the Kremlin's top adviser on relations with the EU, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, dismissed talk of a crisis between Russia and the bloc.
''To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated and reports of a crisis between Russia and the EU are correspondingly seriously exaggerated,'' he told reporters.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, had expressed hope the meat dispute between Moscow and Poland would be resolved in time for the summit, ensuring its success.
But Russia has refused to lift the ban and Poland has retaliated by blocking EU negotiations with Moscow on a new trade and cooperation pact.
No New Deal?
Several European diplomats say they are becoming increasingly convinced that Russia does not actually want a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, even though its current agreement expires this year.
Since the 10-year-old pact can be extended, the diplomats say Russia has little interest in haggling with the EU on a new agreement, given that the Europeans would insist on including language that would irk the Kremlin on issues like human rights.
''I think it's perfectly correct to assume that the Russian position is exactly that,'' said Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations. ''Russia wants a partnership of interests with the EU and not a partnership of values.'' Eventually Moscow may prefer to let the pact die and deal with friendly EU members like Germany on a bilateral basis, even though the common EU market could make this impossible, he said.