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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prospects for a New EU-Russia Agreement

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Both the European Union and Russia are facing uncertain times. The EU remains deadlocked over the future of the constitutional treaty designed to strengthen the union and streamline its decision-making processes. In Russia all eyes are on the presidential election next March to see who will take over the Kremlin.

Europe is also watching the race to succeed President Vladimir Putin, and the EU is actively seeking a new energy policy, partly in response to the disruption of Russian supplies to its neighbors. Add in European concerns about the state of democracy in Russia, and it raises questions about the advisability of carrying out what will inevitably be long and complicated negotiations for a new EU-Russia treaty.

EU-Russia relations are currently carried out under the auspices of the 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, or PCA, which was negotiated in 1994 during the Boris Yeltsin years but took over two years to ratify. The PCA is due to expire this year unless agreement can be reached on a new pact. Both Moscow and Brussels have said that they want a new deal, but Warsaw has vetoed any talks and said that it will continue to do so until Moscow lifts a ban on Polish meat imports. Russia is citing health issues as grounds for the ban.

Both sides seem to recognize that, despite the many problems, negotiations are inevitable. Moscow's general position is that the PCA was negotiated at a time when Russia was weak and that the negotiations have to be carried out between equals this time. Brussels, meanwhile, wants a new PCA in place to provide a legal base for developments in certain policy areas over the past decade, including in the sensitive areas of legal and police cooperation and, of course, the energy sector.

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There are some on the European side who argue that this is not the time for the EU to embrace an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Better wait, they argue, and see if Russia fulfills its existing international commitments regarding democracy and human rights, or at least until we find out who takes over as president in 2008. Others argue that Russia is too important to put on the back burner and that both sides have a major interest in working toward a new and comprehensive treaty.

These pragmatic voices are more likely to carry the day, but they will have to take into account public opinion. Public perceptions play an increasingly important role in European politics and the high-profile murders of Russians, the country's heavy-handed approach to relations with its neighbors and its position with regard to frozen European conflicts has also not won it many friends. Add in crackdowns on the media, civil society and the judiciary, and there is real concern that it might be impossible to get a new treaty ratified by all 27 EU member states.

One major factor in all this is the replacement of European leaders who have had good relations with Putin by politicians whose attitudes toward him are cooler. Angela Merkel replaced Putin's friend, Gerhard Schröder, as German chancellor last year, and this year will bring the departure from office of two other political heavyweights, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Their replacements will need some time to settle in before they and other leaders try to pick up the pieces of the failed constitutional treaty. In the meantime the EU will continue to muddle through under existing rules.

In recent years, it has been the German, French and British leaders who have set the tone for the EU's policy on Russia. The attitudes of Gordon Brown, who is expected to replace Blair this summer, and the French presidential candidates toward Russia are unknown. Merkel, however, has a very different attitude to Russia than her predecessor, perhaps because she grew up in East Germany, under Soviet control. She is not anti-Russian -- she speaks the language -- but she does not think that Moscow deserves special treatment. When Russia cut the flow of oil to Germany and several other EU countries in January because of a dispute with Belarus, she didn't mince words.

"It is unacceptable," she said, "when there are no consultations about actions of this type. That always destroys trust." This was the firmest stance a German chancellor has taken with a post-Soviet Russian leader, and Merkel's comments were made, moreover, in her capacity as the head of the government holding the rotating EU presidency, a post that she had assumed just days before. It is difficult to imagine any other European leader speaking so directly.

There was also a reaction from Brussels. "We are paying for these energy resources and are never late in our payments," said EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs. "We have a right to insist that you never disrupt supply."

Despite Piebalgs' stern words, there is clearly the chance that such a cutoff could happen again, and this understanding was part of the background last month as the European Commission began discussing plans to achieve energy savings throughout the union. Russia's action means that member states are now more likely to take seriously the commission's plans for energy security and diversification of supplies. They are quietly reconsidering their energy calculations to try to become less dependent on Russia, which supplies one-quarter of its oil and 42 percent of its natural gas.

Merkel has been saying that Germany should reconsider its plan to phase out nuclear power by 2020, although she cannot move unilaterally in this direction under the terms of the current coalition agreement with the Social Democrats. More important for the near future, she is urging private industry to build a network of gas pipelines across the EU connected to liquefied natural gas ports in Germany and elsewhere. That would give the EU, and especially the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, an alternative to heavy dependence on Russian energy.

So the path toward a new PCA could be a difficult one. Both the EU and Russia will continue to concentrate out of necessity on developments in domestic politics, but it is vital to maintain and deepen the dialogue between both actors. There is a huge agenda for the EU and Russia to cover regardless of any new treaty negotiations. Kosovo, Iran, Kyoto, WTO accession and combating terrorism are all areas where EU-Russia cooperation is hugely important. A new deal has to be signed.

But this is going to require open and frank discussion of common interests and differences. A sound, long-term relationship cannot be built without common values. The degree to which the EU is able to encourage Russia to recognize these values will have a direct effect on the prospects for and contents of a new PCA.

Fraser Cameron is director of EU-Russia Centre.