MEPs debate EU-Russia relations

Pressmeddelande   •   Nov 30, 2006 10:49 CET

On Wednesday, the plenary session debated the outcome of last week's eighteenth Russia-EU summit - held in Helsinki on 24 November - with the Council and Commission. Energy, human rights, overflight payments, customs issues and Russia's ban on meat imports from Poland were all part of the discussion.

Finland's Minister for European Affairs Paula Lehtomäki spoke for the Council Presidency at the opening of the debate. She reported that the central questions in EU-Russia relations had been discussed extensively, and in a constructive spirit. The EU would continue working on a negotiating mandate for a new EU-Russia framework agreement, with the aim of getting negotiations started as soon as possible, she said.

In Helsinki, the two parties had noted their strong common interest and interdependence in the field of energy. The EU had emphasised the principles of transparency, predictability, reciprocity and openness, which the parties are expected to apply in energy markets, investments and transit infrastructures. These principles should also be included in the new EU-Russia framework agreement, she said.

The two parties had noted that progress in negotiations on Russia's membership of the World Trade Organisation would boost trade, and EU-Russia free trade negotiations could be opened as soon as Russia joins the WTO.

On human rights, the EU had expressed concern about the situation in Chechnya and stressed the importance of thoroughly investigating all human rights offences and bringing the perpetrators to justice. The EU had also raised the issues of the rule of law and media independence in Russia, including the investigations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya's murder.

The two parties had underlined the importance of direct contacts between citizens, inter alia through student exchanges, as a basis for strategic partnership.

External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner pointed out that the summit had been the third EU meeting with President Putin this year. She said she was very pleased that the agreement to end payments for overflight of Siberia, ending a persistent irritant in the relationship. Immediately before the summit, a meeting of EU and Russian business leaders had discussed closer economic integration. At the summit itself there was a consensus to take these matters forward. "Our ambition is to have a single economic space, applying essentially the same rules and allowing the possibility for fair trade."

Mr Putin, she said, had confirmed that the energy charter would not be ratified, but said he was willing to work together with the EU to find a mutually acceptable solution to the issues concerned.

Mrs Ferrero-Waldner said she was confident that remaining obstacles to a strategic agreement could be dealt with. Mr Barroso, she said, had made clear that the ban on Polish meat was disproportionate, and proposed three way talks to resolve the issue. Mr Putin, she said, had made clear the problem was not Polish meat but third country meat transiting through Poland. It was, at least, agreed that there would be no legal vacuum at the end of the present cooperation agreements. Urgent attention would also be given to reducing the queues which are building up at customs control points on EU-Russia borders. Issues relating to Kaliningrad had been discussed, as had cooperation in the common neighbourhood, notably on nuclear non-proliferation.

The issue of human rights in Russia had also been raised, she said, notably including the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. Mr Barroso had said that the perception of a lack of due process was a problem, and he raised the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this regard. Mr Putin had defended Russia's approach to such matters.

The Commissioner indicated that work was also ongoing to try to reduce the difference between the EU and Russia on Kosovo and Georgia.

Political group speakers

Close partnership was vital to both the EU and Russia and each needs to invest in the other, said Camiel Eurlings (EPP- ED, NL), but this partnership must be based on a proper balance between economic interests and democracy. Some progress had been made at the Russia-EU summit (e.g. on overflight of Siberia and visa facilitation), but the outcome had been generally disappointing. The EPP nonetheless understands Poland's position on Russia's year-long ban on meat imports from Poland, and would not wish to see it extended to other EU countries.

We were going through a difficult phase in EU-Russia relations, noted Hannes Swoboda (PES, AT), and although his group would have liked to see the launch of new partnership agreement, "we also understand the Polish veto." Mr Swoboda stressed that the EU should take a common line in trade deals with Russia, and support its Black Sea coastal neighbours. "We will not be silent about human rights" he said, adding that if Russia's President Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with the death in London of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, then he should be striving to see that the people responsible are brought to justice.

Speaking for the ALDE group, Paavo Väyrynen (FI) said there was now an atmosphere of cooperation between the EU and Russia. The difference was that difficult topics, such as democracy and human rights, were being discussed in a constructive spirit. Difficulties had prevented the conclusion of a strategic partnership agreement, but cooperation could continue on the basis of present agreements. Phasing out the flyover payments and the new northern dimension agreement were also positive steps. Regarding the transport backlogs on the border, Mr Väyrynen said "I hope open discussion can resolve this, in particular by reducing the number of authorities involved."

Daniel Cohn-Bendit (DE), speaking for the Greens/EFA group, said that relations between Europe and Russia were sometime surrealist, or like something from a Woody Allen film. "Either Russia is right, and Polish meat is bad, in which case it should not be distributed in Europe, or Russia is wrong, their ban is unfair and we should apply sanctions," he said.

There was, said Mr Cohn-Bendit now "a chain of murders across Europe" but Mr Putin just "shows his angelic face, trained by the KGB, and says he has nothing to do with it." When the Duma adopted laws preventing opposition or NGOs from operating, Mr Putin disclaimed all responsibility. "There is a difference between not wanting to return to the Cold War and accepting the insistent lies of a politician on every topic under the sun," he said.

For the GUE/NGL group, Vladimír Remek (CZ) said the Helsinki summit had not been a success and the blame lay with the EU. If we continued to blame Russia, he said, they would only go on working with more pragmatic Member States bilaterally. "We cannot expect them to agree on an energy deal which is only favourable to our companies," he said, before criticising MEPs who failed to take part in the EP-Russia joint parliamentary committee meetings.

"There's every indication that Russia is not prepared to pursue [partnership] negotiations", said Konrad Szymanski (UEN, PL), citing, allegations that documents accompanying meat imported from Poland had been falsified in Russia itself. "Whether we overcome this tension will affect the future of the EU - if Russia succeeds in splitting us today, they will do so again in one year and we shall take two steps backwards" he said.

"Russia is trying to divide the EU" said Miroslaw Piotrowski (IND/DEM, PL), adding that this was a tactic that it had already tried with the Baltic countries, and an effective one, inasmuch as some Member States appeared to be siding with Russia. "Why is the EU so in awe of Russia?" he continued, condemning human rights abuses in Chechnya, and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had done much to expose them.

UK Speaker

One British MEP took the floor during the general debate - "We need a strong, stable, reliable Russia as a bulwark against militants" said Charles Tannock (EPP-ED), but the EPP took a "dim view" of Russia's involvement in Chechnya, its alleged involvement in the death of Alexander Litvinenko, its practice of "cosying up" to big EU Member States in order to put pressure on smaller ones and its use of phytosanitary regulations to "bully" neighbours.

Responses to the debate

Summing up, Paula Lehtomäki stressed the interdependence of Russia and the EU, and the need to treat each other on equal terms, with mutual respect. Human rights are "not for sale", and basic principles, such as the rule of law, are at the heart of EU-Russia relations, she said. But the debate had brought out the very clear need for solidarity among EU Member States.

In her response to the debate, Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner spoke of the importance of cooperation with both Russia and Turkey on Black Sea issues, which was one issue addressed in the Commission's neighbourhood policy communication, adopted earlier that day. She said useful progress had been made on energy issues, and insisted that the Commission's stance had been as supportive of Poland as it was possible to be. "It was a frank and open meeting, which is always good," she said, "then there is a chance to solve at least one issue and move on to the others afterwards."

Parliament will vote on a resolution on the outcome of the EU-Russia summit during its December plenary session in Strasbourg.

Ref.: 20061129IPR00710
Richard Freedman
Press Service
E-postadress :
Telefonnummer i Bryssel : (32-2) 28 41448 (BXL)
Telefonnummer i Strasbourg : (33-3) 881 73785 (STR)
Mobilnummer : +32(0) 498 98 32 39