President Juncker’s misguided trip to Russia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Vladimir Putin [European Commission]

The visit of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to St. Petersburg does not promote the general interest of the Union prescribed by the EU Treaty, writes Hrant Kostanyan.

Dr. Hrant Kostanyan is a Senior Key Expert at the College of Europe Natolin, a Researcher at CEPS and an Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College.

At a time when people are still being killed in eastern Ukraine on an almost daily basis, when the peace process is in deadlock and when EU leaders are gearing up to renew sanctions against Russia, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s visit to St. Petersburg to attend the International Economic Forum on 16-18 June is ill-timed and counterproductive.

The EU’s sanctions against Russia are up for extension when the heads of state and Government meet late this month. At present, the EU’s restrictive measures apply to individuals, the financial, energy and defence sectors as well as dual-use goods. The EU sanctioned Russia for the annexation of Crimea in June 2014, and upgraded the restrictive measures in reaction to the country’s involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine in July 2014 (and subsequently strengthened in September 2014). In response, Russia banned food imports from the EU as part of its counter sanction measures.

As the time for the decision to prolong the sanctions draws closer, the dissenting voices in the EU become louder. Leaders and politicians from Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Italy but even from Germany and France have expressed opposition to prolonging sanctions against Russia. Italy’s foreign minister argued that an extension should not be automatic while the region of Veneto in Italy passed a resolution calling for a lifting of sanctions. Similar concerns were raised by the foreign minister of Hungary. Germany’s outspoken pro-Russian Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economy, Sigmar Gabriel, went so far as to state that “the common goal” should be to lift the sanctions in the summer. France’s agricultural minister also expressed anti-sanctions views and the French National Assembly passed a resolution urging the EU not to extend sanctions against Russia, although less than one fifth of the deputies participated in the vote.

In expressing opposition to extending sanctions against Russia, many politicians of the EU member states are in fact addressing the concerns of their domestic constituencies. Yet, prolonging, easing or lifting the sanctions is not and should not be linked to domestic politics but rather to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement. Indeed, the Minsk process has de-escalated the intensity of the war in eastern Ukraine, but to date none of the 13 points of the Minsk II agreement has been fully implemented, except the dialogue conducted in trilateral working groups. Although the talks in the trilateral sub-groups on political, humanitarian and security issues are ongoing, little substantive progress has been made.

Russia and its proxies have not implemented their commitments to observe the ceasefire, heavy weapons have not been withdrawn from Ukraine and OSCE monitors have not been given access to the rebel-held territories. Russian troops remain in Ukraine and Ukrainian authorities have no control over the Russia-Ukraine state border. An exchange of prisoners has yet to be implemented and in such a dangerous environment it is not feasible to conduct elections in separatist-held areas, to implement constitutional reforms or declare an amnesty for combatants.

There are no grounds whatsoever for the President of the European Commission to make a goodwill gesture towards the Kremlin, which has done very little to implement the commitments it undertook in the framework of Minsk II. Because of the mixed signals sent by the EU member state officials and now by the President Juncker, the Kremlin has the impression that it can free itself of sanctions without making any serious effort to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

President Juncker should rethink his decision to attend the International Economic Forum, which is held under the auspices of President Putin and is clearly aimed at promoting his prestige and influence. The Kremlin will not pass up the opportunity to use the event for domestic purposes to aggrandise the international credentials of the Russian President. Juncker’s visit will not be perceived as an effort to advance the EU’s “practical relationship with Russia”, as Juncker describes it, but rather will send the wrong political message and put the EU at odds with its Western allies.

Most importantly, the Commission president’s visit to St. Petersburg will not “promote the general interest of the Union” (TEU 17(1)) prescribed by the EU Treaty. On the contrary, it risks exacerbating the existing divisions in the EU, undermines the credibility of the Union and damages the common effort of the EU and its partners to find a lasting solution to the crisis in Ukraine. After all, achieving sustainable peace in Ukraine is crucial for the security of the European continent as a whole.


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