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In the bleak midwinter


Thursday 20 December 2012

The choice of the darkest day of the year – 21 December – as the date for an EU-Russia summit is presumably purely a matter of scheduling, but it seems a fitting reflection of the mood.

There is barely a bright spot in relations (though that bright spot is important: Russian gas continues to light European homes). Run down the list of topics on the agenda and there is little reason to expect anything constructive to emerge from the summit.

The agenda of these summits makes the notion of déjà vu inadequate. Visa liberalisation, a partnership for modernisation, discussions about a long-term agreement to replace a partnership and co-operation agreement that is five years past its expiry date, an airing of concerns about trade and human rights...the list rolls on, and repeats itself every six months. This time, as is usually the case, progress is hard to spot.

Apparently, there might be some on visa liberalisation. But that seems more like wishful thinking. Last December, there seemed to be some advance: a programme of ‘common steps' was agreed. But what has happened since then? Russia has inserted a demand that holders of ‘service passports' to be allowed visa-free access to the EU. The Russian media suggest 100,000 government employees have ‘service passports'; Kremlin material says there are 15,000 such passports. Even if the Kremlin is prepared to cap its demand (as EU officials say it is), it is trying to dictate in a visa-liberalisation process that is partly supposed to be about confidence-building – and trying to force down the EU's throat a particularly unpalatable option: EU member states have security concerns about uncontrolled access for government officials. (In passing, the usual rationale for visa liberalisation is to make travel easier for ordinary people. In this, as in other matters, the Kremlin is saying that state officials matter more than citizens.) The Kremlin is also pushing a timeline for visas to be removed for everyone. It wants them lifted in time for the winter Olympics – and if not, as its visa negotiator, Anvar Azimov, said in November “the strike [back] will be adequate and asymmetric”. It makes one wonder whether Russia is prepared ‘to cut its nose off to spite its face' – to ensure that the process of visiting Russia is kept annoyingly slow and complex even for visitors to the Olympics, with the result that attendance will be depressed.

Then again, Russia shows little obvious desire to attract foreigners. It certainly does not want foreign organisations working in civil society (the United States Agency for International Development was forced out in September), and it does not want foreign money to support Russia's small civil society (organisations that receive EU cash now need to state on their publications and websites that they are ‘foreign agents').

It is easy enough, then, to see why the Kremlin is trying to limit the amount of time spent talking with the EU about human rights. The EU has two ‘human-rights consultations' a year with Russia; the Kremlin tried to cancel the second. (The consultation eventually went ahead on 7 December.)

This time, conversation about human rights may be made additionally uncomfortable – for both sides – by the knowledge that pressure is mounting on the EU to follow the US Congress's example and bar Russian officials implicated in the death, after 11 months in prison, of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian accountant whose crime was to have accused a group of officials of embezzling $230 million of state money. (Presumably some of the Russian officials on the ‘Magnitsky list' have ‘service passports', which would add spice to Russia's visa demands.) But the Magnitsky case is becoming increasingly difficult to keep out of debate, in part because Magnitsky's former employers are pushing Cyprus – arguably Russia's best friend in the EU – to investigate whether its banks laundered the money that Magnitsky says was embezzled. 

In another sign of the bad climate of relations, a previously bilateral issue may force its way onto the agenda because of perceived Russian obstructionism. On 11 December, Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, asked the EU to press Russia to return the wreckage of the plane in which Poland's President Lech Kaczynski died in Smolensk in April 2010. “Poland is hoping that Russia will finally recognise the wreck is no longer needed for examination and can be handed over to Poland,” Sikorski said.

And then, of course, there is the issue that may eventually produce the headlines of the summit: the EU is moving towards referring Russia to the World Trade Organization for, in its view, Russia's failure to abide by the rules of the world trade club – a club that it only joined in August.

It all makes one wonder why EU-Russia summits happen twice a year (and why Putin, who has barely travelled in recent months, did not skip this get-together). With other major partners, summits are an annual affair. And they are not entirely automatic: a few years ago, it seemed for a time that the US would not hold its annual summit with the EU, and this year there has been no annual summit with Japan because Tokyo was waiting for progress on a free-trade deal. Most leaders like to have something to show from a high-profile event. By those standards, there is no reason for one Russia summit a year, let alone two a year. But perhaps that logic does not apply to Putin: he may want, rather than dislike, a lack of progress. And where does that leave the EU? The abnormal frequency of summits becomes an awkward symbol – a symbol of its willingness to accede to Russia's constant demands for special treatment, in the hope that this twice-yearly wrestle will one day turn into a warm embrace.

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