There is a growing feeling within the European Union that the bloc must radically review its relationship with Russia. Two weeks ago in Brussels, the Irish foreign minister, speaking for the EU's current presidency, laid much of the blame at Moscow's door. However, a report by the European Parliament says disunity among member states is equally to blame and calls for clearer EU priorities - among them a stronger emphasis on human rights, especially in Chechnya.
The notion that the EU-Russia relationship is in crisis has become commonplace in Brussels in the wake of the Rome summit last autumn. There, Moscow skillfully exploited differences between EU member states to avoid issues like Chechnya and promote its own vision of shared values and progress in various fields of cooperation. The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee recently adopted a draft report that provides an unusually somber analysis of the EU-Russia relationship. The report will be used in an advisory capacity by EU member states and the European Commission.
The document says there is a widening gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to building "common spaces" with Russia in fields such as the economy, fighting crime and promoting joint research. It says the situation has become "untenable" and calls upon EU member states and the European Commission to undertake a review of the foundations of the EU's policy toward Russia. Speaking before the foreign affairs committee Jan. 20, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen agreed. He said the EU needed to "stand back" and take a hard look at what it wanted from its relations with Russia and how to achieve it.
"I think the basic point is that as a result of recent events, it was very strongly the view of the Council [of Ministers representing the member states] that the [European] Commission needed to review our whole relationship with Russia so that we could see exactly where we are on all these dossiers and in what way we're going to devise a negotiating strategy from here on forward," Cowen said.
The Parliament's draft report notes the EU could play a potentially pivotal role in transforming Russia into a free, democratic market economy. But the report says the EU "is currently underperforming in a most dismal way." The document traces the EU's weakness to a lack of a clear list of priorities to structure the "great number of objectives" agreed over the past years. It then sets out a pragmatic series of goals the EU should pursue.
First, the EU needs to ensure Russia's cooperation in meeting a host of "soft security" challenges - such as joint border management, nuclear hazards, environmental pollution, illegal migration and cross-border crime.
Promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law - with special reference to Chechnya - is listed as the second priority. The report says the EU must "speak with one voice" in tackling the situation in Chechnya, which "in a shocking way contradicts the values and principles on which modern Europe is built." It also supports "linkages" between Chechnya and other security issues, such as potential Russian cooperation in EU peacekeeping missions.
Third comes trade and economic cooperation. The report suggests the EU overestimates its dependence on Russian oil and gas and underestimates Russia's need for EU markets.
The report also criticizes Russia for its refusal to extend the framework Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to the eight new East European member states without preconditions. Among them, Russia wants Estonia and Latvia to make concessions to their Russian-speaking minorities.
Irish Foreign Minister Cowen once again rejected the Russian preconditions. He also sharply criticized the Russian policy of creating spurious "linkages" between unconnected topics. "There is a feeling from the commission... - and not just the commission, [but] also the council - there is a feeling there are linkages being made in relation to these dossiers, which are not obviously logical. I mean, we have, obviously, an energy dialogue with Russia, and that needs to be dealt with on its own merits. It can't be tied in, or conditioned on, progress on some other dossiers of interest to Russia, particularly which have no direct relevance to that particular issue. Unfortunately, over time, in terms of negotiations on a whole range of issues, it appears to me, having listened to the debate at council, after the last summit, that there are linkages here in relation to issues which are not germane to each other," Cowen said.
The Russian linkage between extending the PCA and the Baltic minorities - as well as Moscow's demands for compensation for the trade losses it says it will suffer as a result of enlargement - are likely to prove to be the EU's biggest short-term headaches. Techni-cally, the situation could arise where the current contractual basis for bilateral contacts between Russia and the EU ceases to exist as of May 1. Neither the commission nor the member states appear to have any clear idea how to proceed should such an eventuality arise.
Ahto Lobjakas wrote this for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.