EU-Russia talks downgraded amid tensions over Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin, criticised by EU for interference in Ukraine, in Brussels for talks

Russian president Vladimir Putin visits Brussels today, less than two months after the European Union strongly criticised Russia for interfering in the affairs of Ukraine. Photograph: Aleksey Nikolskyi/Epa

Russian president Vladimir Putin visits Brussels today, less than two months after the European Union strongly criticised Russia for interfering in the affairs of Ukraine. Photograph: Aleksey Nikolskyi/Epa

 


Vladimir Putin visits Brussels today, less than two months after the European Union strongly criticised Russia for interfering in the affairs of Ukraine. The disapproval came after the former Soviet republic withdrew from an EU trade agreement in favour of renewed ties with Russia.

The Russian president is scheduled to hold talks with the heads of the European Commission, European Council and the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. But in a sign of the diplomatic tensions between the two blocs, the summit – initially expected to last two days– has been reduced to 2½-hour meeting.

“What the two presidents [Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy] believe is necessary is a strategic and fundamental discussion of the principles underlying the relationship between the EU and Russia,” a senior EU source said yesterday.

“We couldn’t just have a business-as-usual summit [following Vilnius]. We needed a more political and more strategic [meeting] about the nature of our relationship [. . .] and how we want to bring this forward.”


Ukraine protests
Ongoing protests in the Ukraine are expected to be addressed at the meeting, which is the 32nd EU-Russia Summit.

Protests in the country erupted in November when president Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign a long-negotiated integration agreement with the EU, instead forging closer ties with Russia. The EU has claimed the agreement would not have impinged on trade arrangements between Russia and the Ukraine.

More broadly, the issue of free trade is likely to dominate discussions. With trade between Russia and the EU approaching €1 billion a day, Russia is Europe’s third largest trading partner. The European Union accounts for 45 per cent of Russia’s exports, mainly reflecting high energy exports, with three-quarters of all Russia’s hydrocarbon exports going to the European Union.


Trade controversy
Nonetheless the economic relationship between the two blocs has been embroiled in controversy, despite Russia joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in August 2012.

The EU has accused Russia of implementing protectionist measures in contravention of the WTO rules. The European Commission, meanwhile, is expected to shortly unveil a number of anti-trust charges against Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom.

Earlier this month, Russia issued its first complaint with the WTO over EU levies on Russian steel products and ammonium nitrate.

The EU has also criticised Russia’s record on human rights issues.

Last week, EU representation in Moscow met members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band whose members were jailed last year.

Today’s meeting is also expected to touch on the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement which officially governs EU-Russian relations. Dating from 1997, both sides have been trying to formulate a revised agreement.

As well as the scheduled meeting at the EU’s headquarters, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who is accompanying Mr Putin, will meet with Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.