German-French push for EU summit with Putin blocked

Initiative to set up dialogue with Russia rebuffed by several leaders in Brussels

German chancellor Angela Merkel: “It isn’t enough when US president Joe Biden speaks to the Russian president. I welcome it, but the EU must also create formats for dialogues. Otherwise, we won’t be able to solve conflicts.” Photograph: Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

German chancellor Angela Merkel: “It isn’t enough when US president Joe Biden speaks to the Russian president. I welcome it, but the EU must also create formats for dialogues. Otherwise, we won’t be able to solve conflicts.” Photograph: Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

 

A Franco-German push for EU leaders to consider inviting Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to a summit has foundered after critics warned against “free concessions” at a time of worsening relations with the Kremlin.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, led an initiative this week to step up dialogue with Mr Putin, backed by France’s president Emmanuel Macron.

But the effort ran into opposition at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday night. States including the Baltic countries and Poland protested against plans to bounce the bloc back into a dialogue with Russia. The Netherlands and Sweden also expressed caution.

Critics of the German-French move blocked previous proposals to explore a “leaders’ level” discussion with Mr Putin and stripped back areas for “selective engagement” with Moscow in a summit communiqué. Instead, the conclusions settled on a vague commitment to explore formats and conditionalities for dialogue.

Dr Merkel, who was attending her last EU summit before federal elections in September, said the EU discussion was “not easy” and ended without an agreement. “We defined again under what conditions we are prepared to work and communicate more closely with Russia. There was no agreement today on an immediate leaders’ meeting,” Dr Merkel told reporters.

Gitanas Nauseda, Lithuania’s president, was among those warning against engagement without first laying down clear preconditions for improved behaviour by Moscow.

Ahead of the meeting, Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s prime minister, also cautioned against giving away too much to Mr Putin. “The Kremlin does not understand free concessions as a sign of strength,” he said.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that dialogue should only happen if there was “actual de-escalation”.

Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, had warned he would not attend summits with Mr Putin and that any meetings should be limited to the presidents of the European Commission and European Council.

Wrongfooted

Berlin and Paris had wrongfooted their EU partners, floating their proposal on Wednesday on the eve of the leaders’ summit. The Franco-German initiative followed last week’s meeting between President Joe Biden and Mr Putin in Geneva, which was designed to stabilise deteriorating US-Russian relations.

EU summits with Russia have been suspended since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. The last meeting took place in January 2014 between Mr Putin and the commission and EU Council presidents.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, had warned that it was unclear if a future meeting would happen given the EU’s divisions. “We don’t even know whether the rest of the EU members agree with this,” he said.

Speaking in the Bundestag ahead of the Brussels meeting, Dr Merkel said the EU should seek “direct contact” with Russia in the same way that Mr Biden did. “It isn’t enough when US president Joe Biden speaks to the Russian president. I welcome it, but the EU must also create formats for dialogues. Otherwise, we won’t be able to solve conflicts,” she warned.

Mr Macron said he wanted a “demanding and ambitious” dialogue with Russia, built upon a foundation of European co-ordination and unity, and insisted the EU could not remain purely reactive when dealing with Mr Putin.

The intervention from the EU’s two largest states divided leaders, who had spent hours exchanging barbs with Hungary’s Viktor Orban over LGBTI+ rights. One diplomat said the gambit from Paris and Berlin was widely seen as a “mistake”.

Tougher language

But defenders of the German-French initiative pointed to tougher elements in their proposed text, which vowed to seek a “firm and co-ordinated response” to any further “malign, illegal and disruptive activity” by Russia. This language made it into the summit’s final conclusions.

Leaders also agreed to examine the possibility of economic sanctions as part of the EU’s armoury when dealing with Russia.

But the final conclusions trimmed the lengthy list of areas previously earmarked by Berlin and Paris for “selective engagement” with the Kremlin. The final text removed references to co-operation on the Arctic, space policy and the fight against terrorism and organised crime. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021