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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europeans Hopeful but They Face an Uphill Fight

ReutersSteinmeier, left, speaking during a last-ditch meeting with Putin on Tuesday.
When European Union leaders meet with President Vladimir Putin for the EU-Russia summit on Friday at the Volzhsky Utyos resort near Samara, they face an uphill battle.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said last week that she was eager to achieve a breakthrough in the deadlock over opening negotiations for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the Kremlin.

Both Russia and East European EU-member states have remained adamant in their struggle over trade issues, however, prompting last-ditch diplomacy by Merkel's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday in Moscow.

Diplomats and analysts are therefore expecting a rough ride for the high-level gathering at the resort, whose name means "Volga Cliff." Hopes for opening talks on the new agreement were dashed after Poland and Russia failed to resolve their dispute over Russia's ban on Polish meat and plant products.

Moscow says the ban is a response to public health concerns, but Poland suspects a political motive and refuses to let the negotiations go ahead while the ban is in force. One week before the Samara summit, Moscow sent a note to Brussels saying it would make no concessions despite last-minute calls by the EU.

The Poles claim Moscow is unwilling to resolve the conflict. "It is up to Russia to make the next move," a spokesman for the Polish mission in Brussels said by telephone Tuesday. He said trade in agricultural products between Poland and Russia amounted to $540 million in 2004. Overall trade between the EU and Russia rose to $2.8 billion in 2006.

Lithuania is siding with Poland because it is embroiled in another dispute with Russia over the closure of an oil pipeline. The EU's decision to begin negotiations must be made unanimously, so any one of the 27 member states can block it. "It is a question of principle for us," the Polish spokesman added. "We are an EU member and must be treated as an equal partner."

There is also considerable consternation within the EU over the recent crackdowns on opposition demonstrators in Russia and Moscow's heavy-handed reaction to Estonia's decision to move a Soviet war monument. Critics demanded that the EU take a tougher stand at the summit, and some lawmakers called for a postponement.

"The summit should not take place if Russia does not stop putting such enormous pressure on member states," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German member of the European Parliament, said in a telephone interview from Brussels. Lambsdorff, a member of Germany's Free Democratic Party, pointed to the recent protests outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow and the halting of Russian oil exports to the Baltic states in recent years.

"Russia must recognize that the Baltic states are part of the EU and not part of the so-called 'near abroad,'" he said. "At least the EU must make clear that Russia's actions are unacceptable."

Another European deputy, Angelika Beer from the German Green Party, was more blunt: "The EU must put an end to the political blackmail from Moscow." Under current circumstances the summit should be postponed, she said, "because there is no basis for a strategic relationship."

Beer said Brussels often held its tongue about Russia out of fear that existing agreements would suffer, adding that she preferred the rhetoric of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has called Putin's moves to consolidate power "troubling."

EU representatives insisted that the summit would go ahead and might even make some progress.

Sean Carroll, spokesman for the EU delegation to Russia, noted that the summits with Russia are held every six months. "Since 2005 there has been great intensification of contacts and dialog on all issues," he said.

Carroll also explained that the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was necessary because the current one was signed in 1994 and came into effect in 1997. "The EU and Russia were different places then," he said. If the talks do not start, however, the old agreement can be renewed indefinitely.

The EU has recently been more outspoken before against the Kremlin, notably during the Estonian monument dispute, when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso declared solidarity with the Baltic nation.

Analysts also point to the fact that the EU now lacks key statesmen who were once seen as a Russia-friendly troika: Germany's Gerhard Schr?der, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and France's Jacques Chirac. Under Merkel a much more realistic approach will prevail, said Hannes Adomeit from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, a Berlin-based think-tank.

Adomeit said the Samara summit would probably not bring substantial results. "Putin's hawkish remarks at the Munich security conference made it absolutely clear that he loathes any criticism aimed at Russia," Adomeit said by telephone.

The ensuing debate served rather to highlight European disunity, especially over U.S. plans to place elements of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, Adomeit added.

He said European countries are making individual decisions about energy relations with Russia, rather than following a common energy policy, citing cooperation between Italy's Enel and Gazprom.