EU Backs Talks on Russia Pact

APItalian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, right, with Rupel before the meeting.
BRUSSELS — The European Union approved a negotiating mandate for a new partnership agreement with Russia on Monday after months of internal wrangling, and the EU presidency hoped a deal could be in place in two years.

Others predicted that the broad deal Brussels wants on political and economic ties, including energy and trade, could take much longer to agree on, and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner warned that talks would be long and complex.

EU foreign ministers endorsed the mandate after 18 months of objections from the bloc's former communist members, most recently by Lithuania, which had raised concerns over Russia's role in "frozen conflicts" in some of the former Soviet republics.

The EU hopes now to begin talks with Russia on the new partnership at a June 26 and 27 summit in Khanty-Mansiisk.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, who pushed hard to get an agreement allaying Lithuania's concerns, was optimistic.

"Negotiations will start, I hope, now in June. How long will they take? I think around a year. How long will it take to ratify? I don't know, I hope another year, or I presume another year," he said.

"We are not in front of some quick fix," he cautioned, "but indeed the process has started, and we should be able within the process of negotiations to clarify all the problems that exist between the EU and the Russian Federation."

"[The future deal] should finally provide some legally binding commitments in all main areas," Ferrero-Waldner told reporters.

She said it should cover the economy, trade, internal and external security issues, research, education and culture and industry deals in areas such as energy, in which Russia is a crucial supplier for many EU states.

The European Union sought a "level playing field" on energy in terms of reciprocal market access and would seek a free trade agreement once Moscow joined the World Trade Organization.

The struggle over the mandate highlighted the split between West European capitals that want solid economic ties with Russia and mostly former communist eastern states that want the EU to deal more firmly with Moscow.