Today, October 20, leaders of the European Union countries gathered in Lahti, Finland, to try to forge a common Russia policy so that they can speak with a single voice at the EU-Russia summit next month. Europe’s unified strategy toward its giant eastern neighbor had long been elusive, and the bloc’s expansion to include most of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, made the task of coordinating diverse national interests even harder. One key issue — energy security — remains highly divisive among the bloc’s members. To make matters even worse, Moscow proved quite adept at exploiting these European divisions.
Usually, informal gatherings like the one at Lahti are meant to be venues where European leaders meet, discuss some matters of mutual concern off the record, and try to hammer out common approaches to burning policy issues. This time, however, the Finns who hold the EU presidency took the extravagant step of inviting none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a working dinner. Not surprisingly, this bold move engendered yet another controversy within the EU.
Many European diplomats are reportedly utterly unhappy about the Putin invitation, warning that the whole event will likely end up as a sorry exhibition of EU disunity in its relations with Moscow. Even some Finns appear to agree there is a significant risk. “There is no common position,” one Finnish official conceded. “If we want to be taken seriously, we need to speak in a coordinated fashion.” But the Finnish leadership believes that the experiment, although quite risky, may still prove beneficial. “Russia knows very well the differences in the EU,” Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s prime minister, argues. “But I believe this method in Lahti will place healthy pressure on European leaders to find a common message.”
Apparently, some officials in Brussels and in the other European capitals are encouraged by the sporadic examples of the growing unity among the 25 EU members in matters particularly vital for the bloc’s security. One such important example is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rejection of President Putin’s tempting offer to provide Berlin with gas from Russia’s Shtokman field (see EDM, October 19). Instead, Merkel signed an energy treaty with France on balancing energy relations between the EU and Russia. According to analysts, this move underscores Germany’s new direction, as it appears to be turning away from the Russian policies of Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who displayed a strong tendency to cozy up to the interests of Russia’s powerful energy monopolies. Germany’s “new course” could prove key to the EU’s policy toward Russia when Berlin assumes the bloc’s rotating presidency next January. As one commentary suggests, “The Shtokman gas offer was clearly tempting, but a Europe able to cooperate and coordinate policy is likely [to be] even more in Berlin’s interests.”
However, the EU appears unable to attain its ultimate objective in the “energy dialog” with Russia — namely to make Moscow ratify the Energy Charter Treaty (The ECT is a set of legally binding rules on access to pipelines, investment in new markets, and arbitration of energy disputes that dates back to 1991 and aims to create a “level playing field” between EU states and countries from the former Soviet Union.) That this remains the EU’s principal goal was indicated by the EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso on October 16. “I am in favor of keeping the pressure to ask President Putin to ratify the Energy Charter,” Barroso told reporters in London. “He has not done it, but we should not give up.” But on October 19, speaking with journalists in Moscow, Putin’s special envoy for Europe, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, made it absolutely clear that Russia would not budge. He said it is counter-productive to make Russia act contrary to its national interests, adding that the EU often displays insensitivity to Moscow’s arguments.
In fact, Brussels seems to be slowly coming around to the realization that Russia will not in the foreseeable future ratify the ECT. This means that the European Commission will likely have to offer Russia an alternative energy market model in its new pact for EU-Russia relations to be signed next year. According to well-informed EU sources, the main alternative would be to get the ECT’s most important points into the new partnership and cooperation agreement with Moscow.
But the Russians appear to have sensed this maneuver and are prepared to resist. Symptomatically, Yastrzhembsky hinted that Moscow is wary of “certain EU circles’ intentions” to make the new EU-Russia pact “too much focused” on energy issues. “We are against this,” he said. The Kremlin believes the new treaty has to be much broader in scope and define a long-term agenda, instead of being “tied” to present-day realities.
Furthermore, Russia is unlikely to stop its efforts to break Europe’s fledgling common energy policy. EU energy companies and their Russian counterparts have been pressing ahead with investments despite the lack of a multinational framework. The Kremlin will undoubtedly continue encouraging bilateral deals such as North Stream or the trans-Balkan pipeline project.
“Energy cooperation is growing even despite the lack of [multilateral] agreements,” Yastrzhembsky happily noted.
(Vedomosti, Vremya novostei, October 20; Gazeta.ru, Moscow Times, October 19; RFE/RL, Financial Times, October 18; Euroobserver.com, October 17)