Siberian Thaw for EU Relations?

siberianthaw062808.jpgThe Financial Times has an editorial today about the EU-Russia Summit held at the end of this week in Siberia, commenting that if they can begin to “treat each other with the respect they deserve,” then they can finally get over the years of zero progress and establish a framework for closer political and economic competition. I suppose this argument assumes that Europe doesn’t treat Russia with respect. Since when? If anything we’ve seen an extremely obsequious and placating attitude in various European capitals for the Russians, rolling out the red carpet and doing our best to turn a blind eye to authoritarian abuses, when in fact the last election looked a lot more like Zimbabwe’s “one candidate poll.” There’s a major disconnect in Europe’s perception of the Russian reality, and, in many ways, our dishonesty about what’s happened there in recent years in fact creates an enabling influence to worsen conditions and entrench the Kremlin in these current positions holding back the next EU-Russia partnership agreement. I agree with the editorial’s optimism though – I hope that the cards fall in the right way as a result of the clan infighting, providing liberal factions within the government an opportunity to purge the hawks. We’ll see.

LEADER: Hope for a thaw from Siberia A short trip to Siberia is not usually regarded as likely to inspire good sense, even in summertime. If the temperature is not freezing, then it is plagued by ferocious mosquitoes. But there is a chance that the latest summit between leaders of Russia and the European Union, held in a booming west Siberian oil town, could prove the exception. If it marks the moment when Moscow and Brussels start to treat each other with the respect they deserve, it will have been worth it.

The EU-Russia relationship is hugely important for both sides, not just in commercial terms, but also for security and political stability. The EU is by far Russia’s most important trading partner and also its biggest source of investment. Russia is the EU’s third largest partner, after the US and China.These are the two most important blocs on the Continent. Forging a sensible framework to promote closer political and economic co-operation, cross-border contacts and cultural exchanges is a no-brainer. Yet the two sides have for years been dancing apart, irritated by diplomatic disagreements, and frustrated by mutual misunderstanding.The summit in Khanty-Mansiysk will not change anything by itself, but it is a start. It marked the formal launch of negotiations on a new Partnership and Co-operation agreement that could yet take two or three years to finalise. It was also a chance for Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s new president, to change the tone of recent exchanges. He is not yet the real master of Russia – that remains Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and now prime minister – but he had a clear message: that Russia wants to be treated more seriously as a global partner.The trouble is that both the EU and Russia are internally divided over how, and how far, they want to engage with each other. The EU is torn between westerners who want to do business, and easterners who still fear Russian hegemony. Moscow does nothing to calm those fears by picking quarrels with its former satellite states.Russia is divided between those who want more integration with the world economy, and those who want to maintain barriers to trade and restrictions on competition: a Russian Sonderweg . Blowing hot and cold over membership of the World Trade Organisation is a case in point. Many in Moscow simply cannot understand why they should sign up to someone else’s rules.Mr Medvedev now says he wants to see the “rule of law” in Russia. So does the EU. But do they mean the same thing? Probably not. Both sides need to make concessions. Mr Medvedev should overrule those business interests blocking WTO membership and more openness. And EU leaders should give much higher priority to a new deal with Russia: it is not just another partnership agreement with a neighbour. It is a test case for the EU’s capacity to act as a global player.