Russia

Europe’s top trade official accused Russia of reneging on its commitments to the World Trade Organisation just three months after it joined the group, and warned “the clock is ticking” before EU legal action.

The comments from Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, set the stage for a tense visit in two weeks when Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is due to come to Brussels for a bilateral summit.

They also reveal how quickly the optimism that accompanied Russia’s accession to the WTO in August – after nearly 19 years of negotiations – has given way in Europe to a more familiar sense of frustration.

“Since Russia has become a member of the WTO they are doing exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do or what they have been promising to do,” Mr De Gucht said in Brussels.

“At this moment in time, I’m rather upset about all this,” Mr De Gucht added, calling the developments “very disturbing.”

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As European leaders gather in Brussels for a summit meeting nominally dedicated – for the first time – to energy policy, one uninvited guest is looking on with some dismay: Russia.

High on the agenda is energy security. Which is a polite way of saying that European leaders are discussing how the bloc can break its dependency on Russian gas. In some parts of the EU – notably among the new member states of central and eastern Europe – that policy goal has become an obsession.

“We are totally dependent,” said one Lithuanian diplomat. “Whatever Gazprom says, we pay.” Read more

It was buried amid the excitement of the European Union’s summit in Brussels, but I’d like to draw your attention to a revealing report published on Thursday on the subject of European access to strategic raw materials.  Prepared under the supervision of the European Commission, the report names 14 critical materials that Europe risks not having enough of in the future – with potentially far-reaching implications for Europe’s economic development, not to mention its defence and security. Read more

If the Greek debt crisis is teaching the European Union some harsh lessons about the design of its monetary union, no less serious is the message coming from Ukraine about the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.  Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s newly elected president, agreed a deal with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia last week that gave Moscow a 25-year extension of the right to station its Black Sea fleet in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.  In return, Ukraine secured a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas deliveriesRead more

You know that the European Union is in trouble when Russia offers more intelligent advice on the eurozone’s debt crisis than Spain, the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, disclosed the other day that he had recommended to George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, that the Greek government should request assistance from the International Monetary Fund to sort out its problems.

This is exactly the course of action advocated by several non-eurozone EU countries as well as a host of distinguished economists and, dare I say it, the editorial writers of the Financial Times.  As it happens, I don’t agree – if by IMF assistance we mean financial help.  The IMF will be involved, along with the European Central Bank, the European Commission and eurozone finance ministers, in monitoring Greece’s public finances and providing technical aid as required. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.  Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates.  Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.

It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too.  Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power.  In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.  The European Union has kept Belarus at arm’s length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko.  Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.

There was something surreal about the visit.  Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, praised Berlusconi as “a global, planetary man of politics, our friend”.  Berlusconi responded: “Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see.”  One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi’s famous sense of humour. Read more

There is an amusing and rather revealing story doing the rounds in Brussels about a conversation that took place at last month’s European Union-Russia summit in Stockholm.

In the course of a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a mischievous allusion to the EU’s imminent institutional changes, under which Barroso will for the first time deal with a full-time EU president representing the bloc’s 27 governments – Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s ex-prime minister. Read more