EU Stalled on Mandate for Russia Partnership

APPutin meeting Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker in the Kremlin on Thursday.
European Union efforts to agree on a long-delayed mandate for partnership negotiations with Russia stalled again Thursday despite a prediction of imminent agreement from Luxembourg's prime minister.

Diplomats said Lithuania maintained its veto on starting the talks to demand assurances on energy supplies, cooperation over a missing businessman and Russian movement on frozen conflicts in former Soviet republics.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said in Moscow that he expected the 27-nation EU would overcome 18 months of internal divisions and agree to start talks on a new partnership deal with Russia within days.

Juncker said there was reluctance in Poland, Lithuania and "maybe elsewhere."

"But I think that these will be sorted out in the next coming days," Juncker said in an interview before talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Diplomats in Brussels, however, said no progress was seen at a meeting of EU ambassadors Thursday and that there was scant prospect of the bloc's foreign ministers breaking the deadlock when they meet next Tuesday.

"It could take until June," one EU diplomat said, predicting that the mandate may be approved just in time for an EU-Russia summit with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in Siberia on June 26-27.

Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, voiced concern last week that the EU was allowing the negotiations to be taken hostage by new member states that were once Soviet satellites and bore a grudge against Moscow.

The negotiations, covering trade, economic development, energy, human rights and political cooperation, were due to start in November 2006, but Poland vetoed the mandate after Moscow barred imports of fresh food products from Warsaw.

Poland recently dropped its reservation after Russia lifted the embargo.

But Lithuania has widened its concerns from a cutoff of Russian oil supplies to its refinery, to the disappearance of a businessman in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

Juncker is the longest-serving prime minister within the EU and is considered a crucial player amongst the club of 27 leaders. He is also the chairman of the euro-zone group of finance ministers.

"I do think that the European Union and Russia need the strategic partnership, and I would like the negotiations to take a real start under the Slovenian presidency," Juncker said, referring to the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency.

Juncker said he had a good working relationship with Putin and had been invited to meet his successor, Medvedev, who will be sworn in as president on May 7. Putin has promised to serve as his prime minister.

"My impression is Mr. Putin did a good job in the sense that he was stabilizing Russia and the Russian state, and I am among those who are grateful to him for having done this," he said.

Medvedev said they must discuss both security issues and the new partnership deal.

"We live in a single, European home. We have much to talk about, both in this area, on the question of signing a new agreement, and ensuring European security," Medvedev said.