Graham Stack in Berlin -
Embattled Russian President Vladimir Putin held an unscheduled meeting with former European Commission head Romano Prodi to discuss "the most topical issues on the international agenda," as the EU prepares to change Russia's status from "strategic partner" to "strategic problem."
The Kremlin called the meeting a "private visit" from Prodi, who was president of the European Commission 1999-2004, and retired from politics on 2008 after resigning as prime minister of Italy
Prodi and Putin had discussed bilateral relations as well as "topics on the international agenda," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, but Italian journalists at La Stampa had no doubt that "the Ukrainian crisis" was at the top of the agenda, with Prodi trying his hand at mediating in the Kremlin. Prodi has made no statement about the results of the discussion.
Prodi "as is well known had an intensive and constructive dialogue with Putin," as president of the European Commission, Peskov reminded reporters after the meeting. A far cry from today's Russia-EU relationship, following Russia's March annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and the subsequent meddling in eastern Ukraine. "Russia is today our strategic problem," the newly appointed president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said on December 19.
In fact Prodi and Putin may have revisited the roots of the EU-Russia conflict, back in 2002, when Putin enquired whether Russia could eventually join the EU, and Prodi said "no".
"A few weeks ago, when President Putin's visit to Brussels was prepared, his officials asked me what I thought of a possible Russian accession to the Union," Prodi told the Dutch paper De Volkskrant in December 2002. "There had been a poll that showed that more than 50% of Russians favoured joining the EU. When President Putin was visiting us, he asked again. I immediately made clear to him, no, you're too big."
Putin also commented to the press following EU-Russia talks at the time that "he could imagine Brussels as capital of Russia."
"Regarding [Russian] membership in the EU, talks were held, but not in public, only in the course of negotiations with European leaders," recalled Andrei Illarianov, at the time Putin's economics adviser, since turned chief critic of his Ukraine policy, in an interview in Ukrainskaya Pravda in October 2013. “EU representatives said quite bluntly that they would never regard Russia as a candidate for EU membership.”
But crucially Prodi, when rejecting any future Russian EU membership, also said that neither Moldova nor Ukraine would ever join the EU. "Turkey is an official candidate for membership, that is clear. But Morocco or Ukraine or Moldova? For that, I see no reason," he said in the same interview.
In what was equivalent to a "Prodi Doctrine," the then EC president reiterated in a number of foreign policy speeches that EU enlargement would stop after the accession of the Balkan states, and policy would instead aim to create a "ring of friends" in Eastern Europe, encompassing Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
Prodi at the time explained his rationale for rejecting Russia as it being "too big," meaning that it would dominate the EU's legislative and decision-making processes. But he never specified why Moldova and Ukraine could not join, jarring pro-Europe sentiment in these countries by stating, "that Ukrainians or Armenians feel European, means nothing to me. Because New Zealanders also feel European."
"Ukrainian peacekeepers worked to patch together Croatia in the 1990s – and now it is they who have a membership perspective, and not us," then Ukrainian foreign minister Boris Tarasyuk later complained to EU leaders.
"My job is to think about what happens in the long term. That's why I say what I think and I'm not afraid to give my opinion,” Prodi said in 2002, regarding his views on the limits of future EU expansion.
The EU has never officially retracted the "Prodi Doctrine," which is why it still refrains from giving any EU accession perspective to Ukraine or Moldova – to the chagrin of pro-EU elites in those countries, who have now come to power after staging pro-EU democratic revolutions.
But with the signing of far-reaching free trade and association deals with Ukraine and Moldova in 2013-14 – which envisage "gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the [European Union's] Common Security and Defence Policy" – momentum has gathered for Ukraine to join the EU in the future, despite Prodi's stipulations.
In fact the contradiction was visible from the start. "As a senior EU official recently noted, Ukraine's Action Plan [which led to the Association Agreement] is an enlargement program without the word enlargement; if Ukraine does everything in the plan, enlargement negotiations would take only ten minutes," US diplomats wrote as early as 2005 in a leaked dispatch cable.
Does Putin believe the EU promised him that Ukraine and Moldova would not join the EU, as a sop for rejecting any prospect of Russian membership? And does he now regard the promise as broken?
If so, it may be adding to Putin's litany of paranoia about broken Western promises and conspiracies about Russia being encircled. "Because someone will always try to chain him [the Russian bear] up," Putin said in a TV question and answer session on December 19 immediately prior to his meeting with Prodi. "And as soon as he’s chained, they will tear out his teeth and claws."
Putin has likewise repeatedly accused the West of breaking promises not to expand Nato – suspicions that may have been reinforced by Nato rejection of Russian membership in 2001-2, according to Illarianov.
Putin's bear analogy even reminded of an anecdote from his childhood he told interviewers, shortly before first becoming president in 2000. "I remember chasing a giant rat down the corridor of our communal apartment," Putin said, reminiscing about his childhood in post-genocidal Leningrad. "When we cornered it, the rat turned and leapt right at us." Putin said this told him never to corner people, but its latent sense may suggest his own fear of being cornered.
Prodi, traditionally backing closer ties between the EU and Russia but stopping short of EU membership, may – by ruling out Ukrainian and Moldovan membership of the EU – have set a trap for Europe in 2002 that sprung over a decade later.
One other trap Prodi set for Europe was sprung already in 2009: in late 2002 Prodi opted to relax Eurozone rules that limited national budget deficits to a maximum 3% of GDP. The decision to relax the 3% deficit rule is seen as one of the causes of the ongoing Eurozone debt crisis, which is currently taking a new twist in Greece – and which ironically may still cripple EU attempts to effectively tackle Russia over Ukraine in 2015.
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