The hobbled summit

As the EU and Russia hold their latest summit neither side can boast that they are in the best of health. But the summit is important for symbolic reasons – and there are several practical issues that they can address at the same time.  

Summits are usually staged-managed to look as if they bring together cheerful leaders that have plenty of things to talk about. Before the financial crisis broke out both Russia and the EU shared a certain optimism about their future prospects. The EU believed it was an emerging ‘normative superpower’, while Russia believed it was rising with China on a “BRIC” power trajectory. Today the delegations led by Hermann van Rompuy and Dmitry Medvedev seem to have lost much of that optimism. Brussels fears further disintegration as it stands on the verge of a two-speed Europe, whilst the Kremlin is still in shock after the outbreak of demonstrations demanding clean elections, protesting against the ‘party of crooks and thieves’ – the opposition name for Putin’s own United Russia party. Instead of optimism we have two leaders who are hobbled by recent events.

This meeting is more likely to produce symbolic than practical outcomes. It marks the end of the ‘Medvedev era’, and the next time EU and Russian leaders meet at a summit, Russia is almost certain to be represented by Vladimir Putin. Europeans have been more comfortable dealing with Medvedev, who is seen as a moderniser, but do not seem to know how to handle the relationship with Putin, a past master of the game of divide-and-rule when dealing with the EU. The tone that will be set at this summit is therefore important, and is the opportunity for the EU to signal what kind of Russia – with Putin at the helm – it would like to have as a partner.

The EU may be hobbled but it has not lost its voice. It needs to make a strong statement to Medvedev about the electoral fraud and severe media harassment that has taken place since the Russian parliamentary elections. Journalists covering the protests have been detained or beaten, and senior editors from the liberal Kommersant Vlast magazine fired for publishing pictures ‘insulting Putin’. One of the leaders of the protests, Alexey Navalny, has been detained, in what some think is a ploy to ensure he misses the deadline to enter the presidential race. The EU’s high representative on foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, and a number of EU member states have issued statements expressing their concerns about the situation in Russia. But it is important such concerns are voiced face to face with President Medvedev in Brussels. Keeping quiet would disappoint many of those who took to the streets to protest against the falsification of the election results, and would also confirm that the EU is starting to treat Russia like a ‘small China’, which you do business with but little else.

On the Russian side, the issue of visas will dominate the agenda. Moscow has been pushing hard for a visa-free regime: perhaps the single most important thing that Russia wants from the EU. An easier visa regime – or its eventual abolition – would boost tourism, investment and business on both sides of the border. Visas are also one of the few levers the EU has over the Russian elite, who want to be able to flee to Europe at a moment’s notice should things go wrong. Member states have already agreed on a series of common steps to take towards a visa-free regime. However, Russia has been pushing for an automatic visa-free regime once it meets certain conditions. The EU, worried about uncontrolled migration and asylum seekers, remains lukewarm towards this. In our recent report – “Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia” – we suggested a compromise that might work, with the EU introducing a system of electronic visas with Russia and other eastern European countries. This would make travelling for the EU’s eastern neighbours much easier whilst the EU would still retain its ability to screen the applicants.

The EU also hopes to move on trade issues. The two sides still do not have a functional mutual free trade agreement, although the prospect of having one has improved recently with Russia finally about to join the WTO after 18 years of negotiations. Hanging over the summit, however, is the embryonic Customs Union between Russia and non-WTO Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is uncertain how Russia’s WTO membership and future trade relations with the EU will be affected. The EU should try and get an answer at this summit. Last but not least, Russia’s WTO membership is not the end of the road – it is the beginning. The Russian business environment remains a big challenge for EU businesses (the country remains as corrupt as Nigeria, coming in at 143th out of 182 in the 2011 Corruption Perception Index). Medvedev’s presidency has not seen much of an improvement on this issue, and Putin’s third presidency is unlikely to offer much hope of progress. The EU cannot change Russia, but it could adjust its internal regulations to protect its businesses from corruption. So far the UK has been a leader in tightening its anti-corruption practices in the 2010 UK Bribery Act. For this to work efficiently, all other member states should follow suit.

These are small steps, but could provide practical outcomes from the summit to go with the symbolic. The most important outcome for the EU, however, will be to lean over to Moscow and politely warn that the surest way to lose its grip and legitimacy completely would be a harsh crackdown and tightened censorship. Europe should not feel that it is too weak to make this point.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Associate Fellow

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