Trade, good manners to keep politics off the agenda at Russia-EU summit

By bne IntelliNews May 17, 2007

Tim Gosling in Moscow -

Russia and the EU will meet near Samara on Friday for a summit that had planned to begin thrashing out a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). But given the current frosty relations between the two, analysts say politicians on both sides are resigned to postponing the negotiations yet again, hoping instead to let the strong economic ties between the two lead the way for the meantime. The good manners keeping politics off the table can't last forever, though.

Although the current PCA – which sets out the legal basis for relations in numerous spheres – was signed in 1997 and is due to finish by the end of the year, no one's panicking just yet, despite the start of negotiations having already been set back six months.

In better times

In the absence of a new PCA, the Road Map package of four Common Spaces (economic; freedom, security and justice; external security; and research, education and culture), created at a similar gathering in St Petersburg four years ago, will fill the vacuum by offering a framework for the relationship. And it's just such a practical approach that is expected to hold sway amongst the parties that will meet in Samara, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There are voices in both Russia and the EU that have been calling for stronger action – including cancellation of the summit - over the current hullabaloo between Russia and Estonia. Those who matter, on the other hand, are dealing more pragmatically with what is realistically a storm in a teacup – and have no intention of allowing it to spill over to endanger such a vital trading relationship for both sides.

"To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated and reports of a crisis between Russia and the EU are correspondingly seriously exaggerated," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's top adviser on relations with the bloc, said on Wednesday.

Poland though, whose veto stalled the launch of negotiations on a new PCA last November, is a different matter. It appears the EU has again failed to persuade either Russia or Poland to budge in a confrontation that features a Russian ban on Polish meat imports. And until it does, there will be no new agreement. Yet analysts suggest that now is not the time to swim against the tide.

"Both sides are aware that should they start the process of agreeing the PCA now, it could see a lot of tensions, controversies and conflicts come to the surface. Therefore the prevailing mood – at least in Moscow – is to avoid that," says Lilia Shevtsova of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Yes, the current PCA finishes at the end of the year, but the new approach – both in Moscow and in Brussels (and not just in connection with the Polish issue) – is that they don't need to hurry, because there's so many other questions still unresolved, while many others are covered under the old PCA."

Therefore, it's these "other questions" that will be heard in Samara, with the basis of relations between Russia and the EU secured by trade. With economic ties acting as an anchor, a new PCA, whenever it is finally agreed, will be little more than a formalisation of this relationship, which looks to be on the way to outgrowing spats between the new EU members and their former master.

As RIA Novosti reports, although Vasily Likhachyov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the Russian upper house, says that "today's problems have grown out of the Russia-Poland and Russia-Estonia scope," he also notes that: "Russia and the EU have strong economic ties, and trade reached a record of $231bn in 2006."

Shevtsova says that although Poland and Estonia will be the subject of some tough talking behind the scenes, Germany, holder of the current EU presidency, is known to keep the reins tight among EU members and is unlikely to allow such issues to stand in the way. "The Estonians will be pushing to get the recent problems onto the agenda, but as far as we understand, the Germans would like to sweep that under the carpet. They've been between the various capitals this week to try to ensure there will at least be calm on the surface. Merkel won't be ready to raise this explosive issue at the summit, and no one wants conflict."

Staying positive

Following old-fashioned etiquette then, those at the summit will strive to keep politics off the agenda. Instead, they'll concentrate on the positive – a raft of technical issues to maintain and expand the trading partnership. All of which goes to strengthen ties between the two – thus building towards resolving the tensions at a more convenient time, perhaps.

To that end, says Shevtsova, "there are quite a few technical issues that have been prepared for the summit. Politically there will be no breakthroughs, but there should be on a number of issues, even seeing Russia accommodating some of the EU rules of cooperation. With technical packages – trade and other issues – Russia and the EU are doing pretty well. From this point of view the summit will be useful."

However, Russia and the EU won't be able to put off the crunch time forever. While they may be able to play the pragmatism card to ignore political stumbling blocks such as Estonia, the larger issues between the two invariably mix trade with politics – energy, for instance, or Russia's WTO membership, both of which are due to be introduced at some point this week. Russia's refusal to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty – and of course the EU's enthusiasm for it – is as much about geopolitics as it is about trade and economics.

Add in policy regarding the likes of Iran or Kosovo – which are also on the official agenda for Samara – and the temperature could rise. At this stage, neither side is likely to properly lift the lids on these cans of worms – but that can't last forever if the relationship is to blossom in the future.

As State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov told Interfax last week: "The absence of [a new PCA] because of the Polish veto is not a catastrophe, but we are losing the tempo of cooperation. Figuratively speaking, our relations are moving at the speed of a horse carriage instead of a high-speed train, and that is a pity."

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