EU leaders concluded their two-day summit today (15 March) with an informal discussion on Russia, largely intended as a brainstorming session to prepare an EU visit to Moscow next week aimed at ‘exploring areas of mutual interest'. Much of the debate focused on energy, which EU leaders will discuss during a special summit on 24 May.
Syria and complicated EU relations with Russia took centre stage at the EU summit, as Moscow opposes the resumption of weapons deliveries, saying it would be illegal.
Not less important was the issue of the bloc's energy relations with its largest neighbour and 'strategic partner', Russia. Before holding the talks, EU leaders had already agreed to hold a one-day extraordinary summit on energy on 24 May.
Reportedly various leaders, especially those from the new members from Central and Eastern Europe countries, pushed for a more unified EU position vis-à-vis Russia, but were countered by bigger countries who obtain better prices for Russian gas, such as Germany.
Unlike French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron who didn’t mention energy relations in their statements to the press, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did put a special emphasis on this issue.
“Relations with Russia loomed very high on our agenda,” Merkel said. “We see Russia as a strategic partner. We wish to have a good and sensible relationship with Russia, but also we see a number of difficulties along the way,” she continued.
The German chancellor said that the Union needed “to forge one unified position towards Russia,” but added that this was necessary in the context of “a number of meetings between the EU and Russia and the president of the European Council and the president of the Commission,” requiring EU leaders to adopt a unified position, particularly in the area of energy.
Merkel also said that EU leaders exchanged views about the Eastern partnership, an EU initiative with the Union’s neighbours Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. She added that relations with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine had been specifically discussed.
An Eastern Partnership Summit will be held in November in Vilnius, during the Lithuanian presidency of the EU. Georgia suffers from political tensions between its new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his political opponent President Mikheil Saakashvili. In spite of various difficulties, there are high hopes that Ukraine and Moldova might be able to sign Accession agreements at the Vilnius summit.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait? said after the summit that she felt "more consensus" among European leaders "that the Ukrainian issue need to be resolved."
"Ukraine's European direction should be supported and decisions regarding the signature of the Association Agreement with Ukraine in Vilnius in the fall should be most probably resolved in early May," Grybauskait? told journalists.
But Russia-Ukraine relations have twice plunged EU countries in the chiller as a result of stifled gas supplies during past winters and remain complicated. The summit conclusions say that work is ongoing on the completion of the Internal Energy Market and on interconnections with European energy markets.
“No EU member state should remain isolated from the European gas and electricity networks after 2015," the conclusions read.
Speaking to the press, Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that the case for engaging with Russia was 'overwhelming'.
"On Russia, we need to move from a partnership of necessity to a partnership of choice,” he said.
Van Rompuy also argued that the EU was important for Russia, as it is by far the biggest energy costumer. He said he expected Russia to be a trusted partner and uphold its commitments taken in the WTO, OSCE and Council of Europe.
Regarding the WTO, the EU is upset at Russia's recent stipulation that foreign imported cars there must pay a recycling fee. Russian regulations on alcoholic drinks and textiles making it difficult for European exporters to sell to Russia remain contentious. Meanwhile, Moscow banned the import of live animals from the EU in March last year.
The Union has also expressed worries regarding human rights, especially in realtion to a number of new laws aimed at silencing civil society.
Speaking to EURACTIV, the Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev said that EU leaders had decided to pursue “pragmatic, patient, open relations [with Russia] based on common values and rules, including the Third energy package”.
Russia says the EU rules for energy liberalisation known as the Third energy package discourage Gazprom from investing in pipelines and gas storage facilities as they would grant others access to its infrastructure. Russia sees the Third energy package as discriminatory (see background).
Plevneliev added that some EU leaders argued countries were taking risks when they undertake bilateral negotiations with Russia.
“Countries have to prepare well for the May summit dedicated to energy, including Bulgaria. It is common knowledge that Bulgaria is last in the EU when it comes to the Third energy package,” Plevneliev said.
Indeed, the country has experienced boisterous public protests in the capital and several other cities over the price of electricity, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov three weeks ago.
Bulgaria’s power distribution market is divided into three regions, controlled by Czech firms ?EZ and Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN [see map].
Plevneliev said that the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Marin Raykov would need to bring the country in line with respect to the Third energy package, to the Gazprom-favoured South Stream gas pipeline, as well as “to some other issues raised by the Czech PM and the Austrian chancellor”.
Asked to elaborate, Plevneliev said that the Czech Prime Minister Petr Ne?as and the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann had expressed concerns with regard to investigations on the Czech utility ?EZ and its Austrian equivalent EVN.
Plevneliev added that the caretaker government would make sure that the country plays by EU rules and that these investigations would not be selective and focus only the Czech and Austrian firms, bypassing many other players who in his words have an impact on the price of electricity.