Life After Death in EU

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According to a Brussels anecdote, the main revelation of every European Union presidency at the end of its six-month stint is that there is life after death after all. This is a telling comment on the pressures and challenges faced by any country at the helm of the EU, which has to invest a considerable amount of effort and energy in ensuring the smooth running of the union.

In this sense, the Slovenian EU presidency, which ends Monday, was a success. It not only managed to tackle the strenuous task of coordination, but also achieved some tangible results. One of them is the long-awaited EU mandate for negotiations on the new framework agreement with Russia, which were officially started Friday at the EU-Russia summit in Khanty-Mansiisk.

The success was due to a number of factors. One of them was the increasing conviction among the EU member states about the necessity for a new, updated basis of relations with Russia that would replace the outdated 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Also important was that Slovenia, although a relatively young country, is an active player on the international stage, with concrete multilateral experience as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council from 1998 to 1999 and chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2005. This has not only attuned the Slovenian diplomatic system to quick action and internal coordination, but also injected an understanding of the importance for constructive dialogue and consensus building.

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In this sense, it is not surprising that at the beginning of May, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel decided to go to Vilnius in the unorthodox format of an "open troika." Rupel was accompanied by the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden in a last-ditch effort to secure the negotiating mandate for the new framework agreement. This was followed by an ad hoc visit to Tbilisi to address concerns raised by Lithuania regarding Moscow's attitude toward the "frozen conflicts," especially in Georgia. The action undertaken and the resulting package of compromise proposals made it possible for the general affairs and external relations council of the EU to adopt the negotiating mandate for the new agreement in Brussels on May 26.

This does not mean, however, that the negotiations will be easy. The very form, title and substance of the new agreement between the EU and Russia still needs to be defined during future talks. The first round of which will take place this week, already under the new French EU presidency.

The location of Friday's EU-Russia summit also hints at one of the main possible points of disagreement. Khanty-Mansiisk, located 2,700 kilometers east of Moscow in Siberia, is where the lion's share of the country's oil and gas is produced. When it comes to energy issues, some EU members strongly believe that the new framework document should include certain points of the Energy Charter Treaty. Although Russia signed the treaty at the beginning of the 1990s, it refuses to ratify it in its current revision mainly because of the provision regarding third-party access to the pipelines and transit fees. Hopefully, an understanding will be reached that will ensure a transparent and reciprocal EU-Russia energy cooperation that is acceptable to everyone.

Despite all the challenges, the EU and Russia have more in common than not. This was emphasized by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa in his capacity as the president of the European Council, the body that is comprised of the EU members' heads of state or government. At the closing news conference of the EU-Russia summit on Friday, Jansa pointed out "the symbolism of the summit, the first one where Slavic speech was heard on both sides of the table."

The meeting in Khanty-Mansiisk was therefore the right opportunity to open a new chapter in mutual relations -- especially since President Dmitry Medvedev marked his debut at a major international event with a positive style and tone, which created a very constructive atmosphere.

Despite the fact that a number of delicate and controversial issues remain on the table, the road ahead looks more promising than ever. After all, for the first time since 2003, the EU and Russia were able to agree on summit declarations by adopting joint statements on the launch of negotiations and on cross-border cooperation.

As for Slovenia, we have shown in the past six months that new member states are reliable partners, which can deal with the challenge of an EU presidency and are genuinely interested in deepening the EU-Russia relationship.

Andrej Benedejcic is the Slovenian ambassador to Moscow.