Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the EU-Russia summit in Brussels later this month. But he will make sure his hosts welcome him as the representative of the Eurasian Union – Putin's pet geopolitical project, which bears similarities to the EU.
The date of the summit is still a “working” hypothesis, but diplomats told EURACTIV they were quite confident that Putin will be in Brussels on 21 December.
The Russian leader made his first international appearance yesterday (3 December) after cancelling several foreign trips because of an apparent back problem. Putin was in Turkey yesterday, appearing reasonably fit.
The summit is the second to take place this year, after a first summit in St. Petersburg in June where Putin listed conditions for signing a new basic treaty between Russia and the EU.
Putin said he would not advance negotiations unless the EU formalised relations with the so-called Common Economic Space involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (see background). The three countries have also forged a customs union.
Although the relations between the former Soviet states are still evolving, Putin has publicly promoted the customs and economic ties as a sign of growing integration and has sought to expand the union to other ex-USSR countries, including Ukraine.
EU-Russian relations are currently governed by a 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which was due to be replaced after 10 years by a new accord. But the negotiations on a new basic treaty have stalled.
Russia wants its new basic treaty to include its new agreement with neighbouring countries. But his EU counterparts – European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council President Herman Van Rompuy – explained that the Union did not have a mandate for negotiations with the Common Economic Space.
Russia recently became a member of the World Trade Organization. But the accession of Kazakhstan and especially Belarus to the world trade body will take time, delaying any plans for a basic treaty between Brussels and Moscow.
And it appears that Moscow has not changed its mind about the format of its future relations with the EU.
EU cannot have relations with Russia only
Russian and EU officials revealed deep differences at a debate organised yesterday (3 December) by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels think tank.
Tatiana Valovaya, representing the Eurasian Economic Commission, made it plain that a “common economic space” cannot be created between the EU and Russia, but only between the EU and the Eurasian Union. She also said that she was ready to start “all necessary consultations” with the EU Commission in this respect.
Her views were met with applause by the several Russia high officials present, including the country’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov.
Valovaya criticised the conclusions of a report by CEPS, presented by researcher Hrant Kostanyan, who said the prospects for economic integration in the future Eurasian economic union were “less than favourable”.
Kostanian had compared the EU in its early stages with the Eurasian Union at the present moment. He pointed at the union's unbalanced structure (Russia being “too big” compared to its partners), as well as Moscow’s limited exchange with Belarus and Kazakhstan, in comparison with the relatively big dependence of these countries from the Russian economy.
In addition, trade between Belarus and Kazakhstan is almost nonexistent, he said. Kostanian also mentioned the many non-tariff barriers and the unreliable judiciary, which carries a potential for trade dispute.
Valovaya said that CEPS “obviously” had “the right methods to compare” but “not enough information” about Russia’s regional integration, which she committed to provide. She said that the customs union was still being modelled after the EU. She also underlined some “advantages” of the customs union compared to the EU, citing the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny.
EU has mixed feelings about Russia's customs union
Peter Balas, deputy director general for trade in the EU Commission, for his part shared the conclusions of the CEPS report and described the CU as “no more than a partial customs union”.
He said that the EU would welcome the creation of another customs union in its neighbourhood if it contributed to the liberalisation of economic relations.
But Balas added that this had not been the case so far with the customs union, whose increased tariff protection has created problems for Kazakhstan, the most liberal of these countries, as he described it, with respect to its WTO accession.
Russia appears to breach WTO rules, he said, adding that there were concerns for Brussels, including import barriers that are inconsistent with WTO rules and bias against imported vehicles.
“At this stage we don’t think that the conditions are in place for an EU-customs union agreement, simply due to the fact that the [Eurasian] customs union is not WTO-consistent,” Balas said.
Lisbon to Vladivostok?
Balas added that the perspectives of a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok, as described by Putin, would “have to wait” until the conditions for a free trade agreement between the EU and the customs union are in place.
Ukraine, a country which unlike Russia seeks EU integration, has shown jealousy at the fact that Moscow will hold two summits with the EU in 2012 but none with Kyiv. Asked by EURACTIV about the place of Ukraine in Russia’s plans, Valovaya said it did not matter if Kyiv had a “special relation” with the Russina-led customs union or the EU, “as long as we have this common economic space between the Eurasian economic union and the European Union”.
“For me it’s no difference if Ukraine is part of a future Eurasian economic union, or a part of a free trade agreement with the EU,” she said.
Balas said the EU's trade pact with Ukraine would be “ready for signing” in the “next few months”. He said Ukraine had far more to gain from closer trade ties to the EU than with the Russian-led bloc.