EU's Man in Moscow Says Hard Talks Ahead

The negotiations between Moscow and Brussels for a new and wide-ranging cooperation agreement could get tougher than the cumbersome 18 months of wrangling leading up to them, the European Union's top representative in Moscow said.

"The talks might be more difficult than it was defining the mandate," Marc Franco, the head of the EU delegation to Russia, said in an interview Friday.

Given the complexity of the issues, he would be not surprised if talks were to be drawn out for more than a year, Franco said by telephone from Florence, Italy, where he was attending a conference of the European University Institute.

He refused to give any timeline for the negotiations.

At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, the foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states are expected to approve a deal reached last week to begin talks with Russia, a decision blocked for 18 months by disputes over how to deal with Moscow's more assertive foreign policy.

Franco singled out Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, a process currently fraught with political disputes, as a major hurdle for the negotiations to overcome.

"I would not call this a precondition, but yes, Russia should be in the WTO by the end of the negotiations," he said. Otherwise, the nature and the form of the agreement would have to be reconsidered.

He explained that, despite the EU and Russia in 2004 bilaterally agreed on conditions for Moscow's WTO accession, there were still outstanding trade issues between Brussels and Moscow that complicated the process.

One of these issues is Russia's increases in export duties on wood, which began in mid-2007 and have been raised more steeply since. Franco said this hit the wood-processing industries in Finland and Sweden very hard and that the EU would continue its negotiations under Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson to find a compromise solution that would adequately reflect the interests of the affected industries in the EU and legitimate economic interests of Russia.

"The European Commission does not agree with the way in which Russia is currently applying export duties on wood, which we believe breaches an agreement concluded in 2004," he said, adding, "It also contradicts efforts to maintain open markets between the EU and Russia."

Other sore points were Moscow's tariffs for rail transportation to foreign ports, including Baltic ports, and charges to foreign airlines for overflight rights, Franco said.

Russia's WTO accession has met stiff opposition from a number of countries, some of which have openly declared that they had political motives for doing so. Georgia recently said it would block Russia's ambitions because of the worsening conflict over the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which has seen renewed support from Moscow after the United States and the EU recognized Kosovo as an independent state.

The so-called frozen conflicts over disputed territories of the former Soviet Union are also part of a list of subjects that will be included in the negotiations over the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, after Lithuania threatened to veto the start of the talks.

Lithuania agreed to drop its veto only last week after winning assurances from Slovenia, which until the end of June holds the EU presidency.

Russian officials have voiced disappointment at the assurances. If Lithuania's demands will be heeded, "this could set a precedent that might weaken the atmosphere of strategic partnership," Vasily Likhachyov, deputy chairman of the Federation Chamber's Foreign Relations Committee, told Interfax last week.

Franco downplayed the significance of the holdup over Lithuania's objections.

"These issues that will be put on the table would have been on the table anyway, and Lithuania just put more emphasis on them," he said.

Likhachyov warned that the negotiations should not descend into bartering. "If Brussels lets this happen, the agreement will just be ineffective," he said, Interfax reported.

Franco also dismissed fears that the often-fractious 27-member bloc would be at a serious disadvantage when negotiating with Russia's new government, led by strong allies President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Even in a country with strong leadership there can be different opinions," he said. "Russia can speak with one voice, but that does not mean that everybody here thinks the same thing."

"We have found a common position and now it is the task for the commission, for the presidency, for Mr. Solana to ensure the coordination of points of views," Franco said.

The EU's six-month rotating presidency will pass from Slovenia to France in July. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, represents the EU abroad where there is a common foreign policy.

Franco said the EU's size was both a weakness and a strength. "This is the first time that so many countries [have decided] to work together," he said.

The talks are set to kick off at the EU-Russia summit in the west Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiisk on June 26-27.

The lead negotiators at the summit will be Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov and Eneko Landaburu, the EU director-general for external relations, Franco said.

European diplomats also dismissed speculation that the EU had waited with its go-ahead until the new leadership under Medvedev had been installed.

"This really is a total coincidence and no calculation whatsoever," a senior diplomat familiar with the preparation for the talks said by telephone from Brussels on Friday. "There is no hidden agenda. It just happens that sometimes decisions at the EU take a very long time," he said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The start of the talks was stalled over much of 2007 because Poland wanted Moscow to lift an embargo on Polish meat and agricultural products. The impasse was solved late last year but was followed by Lithuania raising its objections.

But Moscow last week imposed a new ban 18 meat producers from France, Belgium, Spain and Germany.

It was unclear whether this latest move, announced by the Federal Service for Veterinarian and Vegetation Sanitary Supervision on Thursday, could jeopardize the EU ministers' decision Monday.

Franco said in a text message via his spokeswoman Saturday that he hoped the ban would be lifted soon and "would not have significant influence over the [ministers'] decision."