A high-ranking European Union diplomat regretted that no EU officials were invited to a London meeting today (14 March) between US State Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, described as a last-chance opportunity before Russia annexes the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Pierre Vimont, a French diplomat who heads the bloc's foreign policy department, the EU External Action Service (EEAS), admitted failures in the Union’s handling of the current confrontation between the West and Russia over Crimea.
Speaking in Brussels yesterday (14 March), Vimont said “the EU should also be there" when John Kerry meets Lavrov.
“We need to call for this," Vimont told a conference organised by Carnegie Europe. "I don’t think we could be successful but I think that’s what we should do,” said the EU's highest-ranking diplomat after foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“After all, the whole thing started because of the DCFTA and I think we should definitely be there”, Vimont said, referring to the deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), which is integral part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (AA).
The EU is due to sign the political chapters of the AA very soon, most probably over the 20-21 March Spring summit of the EU heads of state and government. But in an apparent concession to Russia, the DCFTA will likely be signed later because EU leaders had promised Russian President Putin to overcome “different interpretations and misunderstandings” on this pact.
Vimont said Russia perceived the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative as a threat.
“As long as we are not able to answer the question of NATO, EU membership for Ukraine, we will not be able to stabilise our relations with Russia,” the diplomat said.
The AA stoops short of offering Ukraine an EU membership perspective, but the leaders of the centre-right European Peoples’ Party, which counts German Chancellor Angela Merkel among its members, recently backed offering EU membership perspective to Kyiv.
‘Start something different’
The French diplomat appeared to rebuff the European leaders' hostile stance towards Russia, saying confrontation has never been the aim of the EU’s neighbourhood policy.
“We are pushed into the wall by Cold War reflexes,” Vimont said, adding that Cold War was “outdated” in a globalised economy. He said both Russia and the West should stop behaving in the way they have been behaving, on both sides.
“We should stop looking at each other in the old way. We should start something different”, the diplomat said.
However, he conveyed the message that the Brussels bureaucracy was putting brakes to a more innovative approach of the EU neighbourhood policy which would involve Russia.
Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, indicated that the confrontation started when EU officials said the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine was incompatible with the Russia-led Customs Union and Eurasian Union.
But Vimont suggested that this choice was not as “inescapable” as initially thought.
“What strikes me is when we ask is this really incompatible as it’s really said, we discover, discussing with our experts, that maybe it’s not exactly that, and we can find a common ground," the diplomat said, adding that the idea of holding trilateral meetings at the highest level between the EU, Ukraine and Russia had been discussed after the failed Vilnius summit in November.
“What strike me is that we had our whole bureaucracy saying we should not do things that way,” he said.
The trilateral meetings were rejected by EU officials who believe Russia should not be offered a veto right on the Union's relations with an 'Eastern neighbourhood' country. But the French diplomat said fresh ideas were now needed, like development of a trans-European area from Lisbon from Vladivostok.
At the last EU-Russia summit on 28 January, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that an important way to foster trust was to work on the “most important strategic and shared objectives,” namely to create a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
This idea of a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok was first described by Russian President Vladimir Putin back in 2010.
“It may seem a dream, but dreams can become reality”, Barroso said.
Another speaker at the event, Rosa Balfour, head of the Europe program at the European Policy Center in Brussels, called the 28 January EU-Russia summit a “missed opportunity” which largely contributed to the present tensions, reminiscent of the Cold War.
At an extraordinary summit on 6 March, EU leaders denounced Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and threatened Moscow with sanctions if it did not take steps to “de-escalate” the crisis.
EU Leaders strongly condemned Russia's “unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity", and called on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces and allow immediate access for international monitors.
Failing to do so, EU leaders threatened Moscow with sanctions, including travel bans and assets freeze, which could potentially hit Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- 14 March: US State Secretary John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London;
- 16 March: Crimea holds referendum to become part of Russia;
- 17 March: EU ministers meet in Brussels to decide sanctions on Russia;
- 20-21 March: EU leaders hold regular Spring Summit in Brussels, Ukraine may sign political chapters of EU Association Agreement.
NGOs and think-tanks:
- Carnegie Europe: Crimea and the cost of playing for time, by Judy Dempsey
- Carnegie Europe: Welcome to Cold War II, by Dmitri Trenin