EU Says Poland Will Lift Trade Deal Veto

The European Commission said Wednesday that Poland was ready to lift its five-month veto on partnership negotiations between the European Union and Russia, but Warsaw said its conditions had not changed.

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski once again tied lifting the veto to Moscow ending a 16-month ban on Polish meat imports, while Russia's food watchdog insisted there could be no political trade-off between the two issues.

"The commission has indeed received indications from the Polish authorities that Poland is in a position to give its agreement to the launching of negotiations ... between the European Union and Russia," Johannes Laitenberger, spokesman for the European Commission, said at a news conference.

EU president Germany quickly welcomed what a Foreign Ministry spokesman called a "first important step" from Poland toward lifting the veto, as did the Russian Foreign Ministry.

But asked at a news conference about the reports, Kaczynski said: "If the Russians lift the ban, and if the mandate [for talks] includes energy issues in a way that is satisfying for us, we will lift the veto."

That appeared to put things back to square one, raising the question of whether EU officials were trying to push Poland into making the first move, or whether more was going on behind the scenes than Kaczynski's statement acknowledged.

Poland blocked the EU negotiating mandate last November to demand an end to the Russian embargo on imports of Polish meat and vegetable products, officially ascribed to fraud incidents.

Alexei Alexeyenko, spokesman for the Federal Service for Veterinarian and Vegetation Sanitary Supervision, said: "This is not a case when there can be a political tradeoff because we are talking about food safety and the health of consumers."

Laitenberger said there had been intensive contacts between European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Kaczynski, and congratulated Poland on its "very constructive orientation."

But Barroso himself was wary when asked by reporters when he expected the delayed negotiations to begin.

"The latest developments are positive, the indications we receive are positive. ... But at this stage I cannot yet give you a concrete, clear answer if we are going or not to start negotiations and when," he said.

A Polish diplomat said the country's envoy to the EU had told his counterparts this week that Warsaw was keen to end the standoff between the bloc and Russia. But diplomats from other countries cautioned that they had heard such comments before.

"Our goal is not to block the negotiations. We would like to reach an agreement," he said.

The diplomat said Poland would agree to let talks start if the EU attached a suitable statement to the negotiating mandate.

Germany is making efforts to break the deadlock in time for an EU-Russia summit on May 18. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the mandate at their April 23 meeting in Luxembourg.

Another EU diplomat said the ambassadors of the 27-nation bloc made some progress Tuesday toward adopting the mandate.

But optimism in Brussels is tempered with caution in the absence of a clear signal that Russia will lift the embargo.

"Poland gave some signals that they could move, but we have seen such signals before," the diplomat said. "It would be exaggerated to say we are home and dry."

Warsaw insists its foods are safe since they are accepted in 27 EU nations that have strict standards and it argues the ban was politically motivated.

Russian and EU experts have inspected Polish meat processing plants this year and the Commission has sent copious documents to Moscow concluding there is no reason to keep the ban.

But Sergei Dankvert, chief of the Federal Service for Veterinarian and Vegetation Sanitary Supervision, said this week that the inspections should be repeated.