The Irish Times view on EU-Russia relations: Moscow snubs rapprochement

The humiliation of the EU’s foreign policy chief will add to momentum for tougher sanctions against the Putin regime

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow last week. Photograph:  EPA/Russian Foreign Ministry handout

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow last week. Photograph: EPA/Russian Foreign Ministry handout

 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is facing a barrage of criticism from MEPs – 70 have called for his sacking – for a trip to Moscow last week during which, critics say, he was diplomatically humiliated by the Russians. Anxious to reset fraught relations between the EU and Russia, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy returned to Brussels to admit to a fruitless visit and to promise he would now work for new sanctions over the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Yet in truth, Borrell, who could have been more diplomatically adroit, has become a lightning rod for anger in member states at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s treatment of Navalny and frustration in European capitals over EU impotence and disunity in its dealings with the regime. No single visit and upbraiding by the EU’s representative was ever going to put that right, and the humiliation was clearly a deliberate Russian snub. Socialist Borrell is a convenient whipping boy, particularly for conservative MEPs who accused him of “appeasement” in failing publicly to challenge Russian putdowns.

At a mid-session press conference, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of Navalny and called the union an “unreliable partner”. Adding further insult, Borrell learned from Twitter during lunch later that Russia had expelled three EU diplomats – from Germany, Sweden and Poland – for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny. Putin’s spokesman said Moscow is “not going to tolerate” interference in its domestic affairs.

Borrell defended his trip to MEPs on Tuesday, saying his hope had been to look beyond Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the EU’s subsequent sanctions, to possible co-operation in areas including climate change, digital, research and coronavirus.

How to deal with Russia has opened internal EU divisions. While Germany and France, with strong economic ties with Moscow, are furious at Putin’s authoritarian drift and repeated pushing back of attempts at rapprochement, they favour closer engagement. Berlin is at odds with partners over its refusal to cancel the huge Nord Stream 2 pipeline project bringing Russian gas directly across the Baltic Sea to Europe.

The three Baltic states and Poland, which had opposed the trip, feel vindicated and are likely to see strong backing for more targeted sanctions against Putin cronies and the Russian elite at the next foreign ministers’ meeting. It is unlikely, however, to meet the demands of some MEPs, who would like far wider application of the so-called “European Magnitsky Act”, named after the Russian whistleblower who died in a Moscow jail in 2009, and which allows the EU to freeze assets of, ban entry to, or prohibit dealings with human rights abusers wherever they are.

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