Business chiefs have joined a growing chorus of senior politicians demanding the EU to adopt a more conciliatory stance on negotiations with Russia, currently chilled as a result of the tug-of-war over Ukraine relations.
Since the Vilnius summit of the Eastern partnership held on 28-29 November, which saw Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich turn his back on an EU Association Agreement (see background), leaders have been pressed to re-think their handling of international affairs against an ever-more assertive Russia.
“We have a great relations with Russia as Austrians, we understand their souls well because the Slavic element in our own history. I would prefer to see this crisis as an opportunity,” Christoph Leitl, the president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, told EurActiv in an interview.
“Why not take the opportunity to get Russia, the EU and the Ukraine together around the same table,” said Leitl, who is also the honorary president of the European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (EUROCHAMBRES).
He said that the crisis presented an opportunity to “have an EU with a wider free-trade or economic area which both Ukraine and Russia could be invited to join.”
“That would give Europe amazing clout in the global economy. It would tie European know-how with Russian resources and I would say: ‘Let’s do it’,” he added.
Business leaders echo politicians
Earlier this month, Leitl’s compatriot Markus Beyrer – the director-general of BusinessEurope, the business confederation – told Austrian financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt that whilst Europe must point out when Russia fails to honour its WTO commitments, “Moscow is an important partner on a business level, we must find solutions together.”
He said that finding solutions included three-way dialogue between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, and lamented the fact that this option had been rejected by the EU.
Such talks must not stand in the way of the EU and the Ukraine finding a common agreement, Beyrer said, but he added: “One must not ignore the Russians-they are also affected.”
The Austrians join a growing political chorus calling for a more conciliatory approach.
In an interview last week with EurActiv France, French MEP and former minister for European affairs Alain Lamassoure, said that Paris, Berlin and London are wrongly defining their Russian policy by aligning themselves with the US.
>> Click here to read the entire interview with Alain Lamassoure, in French.
“We consider in those three capitals that Washington is the leader vis-à-vis Moscow. But Washington has no Russian policy anymore. And given that Russian missiles don’t threaten the American soil anymore; the situation in Russia doesn’t call for an American strategy. However, the situation in Russia is very important to us Europeans, obviously.”
German foreign minister concerned with both sides’ tactics
The European Union should make its relationship with Russia a priority, Lamassoure said, adding: “It would be good to have a doctrine which would really allow us to talk to the Russian interlocutor.”
Meanwhile, in his inaugural speech this week in Berlin (17 December), Germany's new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised both Russia and the EU in their tug-of-war regarding Ukraine.
Whilst condemning the Kremlin’s negotiating tactics over the Ukraine, Steinmeier also repeated questions raised by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski about whether the EU had underestimated how divided Ukraine was and how determined Moscow was.
"I say quite openly I have no answers to that. But I'm certain we need to be able to answer that before we can respond to calls for help in stabilising the situation there," he told Reuters.
Ukraine will be discussed by heads of state and government today (20 December) during a summit officially dedicated to defence and economic issues.
The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU.
The statement made it clear that the decision was taken with a view to elaborating measures towards “Russia and other countries from the Community of Independent States”.
Ukraine said it would propose to the EU and Russia the formation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues”.
A last-ditch attempt on 29 November by EU leaders to convince Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to sign the AA failed. Dalia Grybauskait?, the Lithuanian president and summit host, said Yanukovich arrived in Vilnius without any intention to reach an agreement.
Following the news that Yanukovich failed to sign the AA, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets, demanding his resignation [read more].
- 20 Dec. 2013: EU heads of state and government to discuss the Ukraine at Brussels summit