Vladimir Putin will next Tuesday (28 January) meet his European Union counterparts, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, for a summit that has the makings of a tense encounter.
Strains in the relationship between Russia and the EU have become very public in the past three months, with both sides trading accusations of “blackmailing” Ukraine after the former Soviet satellite’s late decision to pull out of political and trade agreements with the EU, and subsequent decision to turn to Russia to bail it out.
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A meeting between the EU’s foreign ministers with their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on 16 December developed into what diplomats described as an unusually frank discussion, including a clash over homosexuality between Lavrov and Guido Westerwelle, then Germany’s foreign minister, who is gay.
Four days later, at the end of an EU summit, Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, promised that the EU’s summit with Russia would include an “open and frank” exchange about the “long list of differences” between the two sides.
A widespread sense that the EU could not and should not hide the strains is reflected in a prolonged debate within the EU about the format of the twice-yearly summit. In the event, diplomats and officials say, member states told Van Rompuy and Barroso, the president of the European Commission, that the meeting should be smaller and shorter.
The previous Brussels summit was a two-day affair, on 20-21 December 2012, starting with a dinner and attended by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, the European commissioners for energy and trade, and the Russian ministers for foreign affairs, economics and energy. This time, the event has been cut back to one day, with just one meeting, of 150 minutes, between the three presidents. Attendance at the meeting is expected to be limited to the presidents’ closest advisers, plus Ashton and Lavrov.
The European External Action Service says that the change gives an opportunity for an “in-depth reflection between principals on the nature and direction of our strategic partnership”. But the less structured format could also result in a debate that devolves to less strategic issues.
Ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which start on 7 February, Russia has come under particular criticism for legislation intended to prevent ‘homosexual propaganda’. Konstantin Dolgov, Russia’s commissioner for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, will today (23 January) meet the press in Brussels to present a Russian government “report on the human-rights situation in the European Union”. The report describes an “aggressive propaganda of homosexual love” in the EU, but also notes resistance “also in those countries which have always taken a liberal attitude towards queers”.