Friday, May 30, 2008


The European Union and Russia

Uneasy partnership
May 29th 2008 | BRUSSELS
From The Economist print edition
The European Union has agreed on what it wants from Russia. But not how fast

WHETHER it was brave or clumsy depends on your point of view. But Lithuania (population 3.5m) has nudged the European Union (population 500m) into a slightly tougher stance towards Russia. Talks on a (long overdue) partnership agreement were first postponed because of Russia's embargo on Polish meat. When that was lifted, the obstacle became Lithuanian demands for firmer terms concerning energy, judicial co-operation and Russia's treatment of countries such as Georgia.EU diplomats fumed about Lithuania's tactics, complaining of belated timing, poor preparation and unrealistic expectations. A few said this was just the sort of thing to strengthen the view in “old Europe” that letting neurotic and primitive ex-communist easterners into their club had been a mistake. Certainly some foreign ministers' meetings discussing the issue have been remarkably stormy by EU standards.But a meeting on May 27th agreed upon a new negotiating mandate, with small but significant changes on some points sought by Lithuania. “They have attracted attention to Russia's behaviour in Georgia, which is timely and good,” says an official from a neighbouring country. The talks on the partnership agreement will start at an EU-Russia summit in Siberia next month.The question is how fast they will go. Germany wants things sewn up, at least in principle, within a year. That seems too soon to countries that are hawkish on Russia, as well as to the European Commission. This camp wants a more detailed deal, in which Russia would have to make big changes on such contentious issues as its energy monopolies, investor protection and illegal migration. In return the EU would offer a laxer visa regime and let Russian energy companies expand westwards more easily. Other countries are moving to counter what they see as Germany's overly Russia-friendly policies. Poland and Sweden this week launched their own plan, called the “eastern partnership”, to offer generous trade and other co-operation to Ukraine and Georgia, as well as to other interested countries. The aim is to recreate the model of the “Visegrad” group of four central European countries in the early 1990s, which helped ex-communist states to prepare for what at the time seemed the highly uncertain prospect of EU membership.For the first time in any EU initiative, the plan explicitly includes Belarus (albeit only on a “technical” level for now). Russian regions such as Kaliningrad are also welcome to apply for some of the goodies that a partnership agreement can offer, such as better border crossings and environmental projects. Ex-communist Poland and rich, neutral Sweden may prove an effective combination. Their forceful foreign ministers, Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt, get on well. Bravery is good. But brains are even better.

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