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A new treaty with Russia?

By Dick Leonard. Source: European Voice

Don't rush into it, suggests Dick Leonard

Perhaps the Polish government did the European Union a favour when it prevented the conclusion of an agreement with Vladimir Putin at last month's EU-Russia summit, to begin the negotiation of a new treaty to replace the 1997 Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA).

The current strained relations, which are likely to be exacerbated by the repercussions of the Litvinenko murder enquiry and the probability of a major clash with Russia over Kosovo in the New Year, suggest that this is not the optimum time to start on a major new initiative.

It might be better to wait until next summer, when the departure of Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, following on the heels of the exits of Messrs. Schroeder and Berlusconi, may lead to a more cohesive approach on the EU side. Indeed, a case could even be made for waiting until the spring of 2008, when Mr Putin's successor will be in charge of the Kremlin, and Russia will almost certainly have obtained entry to the WTO, which would remove the need for detailed bargaining on trade.

Little of substance will be lost by this delay, provided both sides remain of the opinion that it is in their interests to continue what co-operation there has been within the PCA, despite the disappointment that it has fallen far short of the original hopes. Although its anticipated 10-year span comes to an end in 12 months' time, it will be extended automatically unless either side gives six months' notice.

The Russians seem anxious – perhaps largely for prestige reasons – to negotiate a new text, which would have the status of a full-blown treaty, as soon as possible. Not every one on the EU side is so sure. Two reports from think-tanks, one based in London, the other in Brussels, argue for caution.

Katinka Barysch, of the Centre for Eurorepan Reform (CER), argues that "the EU should take its time…In the medium term a framework treaty looks like a good idea. But for the time being, the EU and Russia should focus on making existing agreements work, in particular the four 'common spaces' [economics, internal security, foreign policy, and research and education] and the energy dialogue".

She quotes a Commission official as saying; "If the [already agreed] road maps were fully implemented, the EU would have a relationship with Russia that is almost unprecedented in its breadth and closeness".

In Brussels, Michael Emerson and colleagues from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), in their new book, The Elephant and the Bear Try Again, cast considerable doubt about whether a new treaty, which would require a long and uncertain ratification process by the European Parliament and the 27 member states, would be worth having at all.

"A far more realistic and efficient model would seem to be one of negotiating multiple sector-specific agreements, each adapted to the most appropriate timing and format", they conclude.

Emerson notes that the EU has never felt the need to negotiate an over-arching treaty regulating its relationship with its most important trading partner – the United States.

Its rapidly developing economic relationship with India is also not governed by a treaty, but merely by a "Political Declaration on Strategic Partnership", a two-page document, negotiated in 2003, between the "world's two biggest democracies", as they correctly described themselves.

In the long-term, this could possibly prove a model for a high-level agreement with Russia, Emerson argues. But now is not the time when - so far from moving closer to the EU's democratic ways - Russia seems to be going more and more in another direction.

Good economic relations between the two entities have never been more important, with the Russians sending 60 per cent of their exports to the EU, which already depends for a fifth of its total energy consumption on Russian sources, a proportion which seems bound to grow substantially.

Both sides have a strong incentive to improve the depth and quality of their co-operation in the economic sphere. Yet an attempt at this stage to negotiate a wider agreement seems bound to raise expectations on the EU side that the Russians are unlikely to be willing or able to meet. Far better to wait, in the hope that a more auspicious occasion will eventually arrive.

8 December 2006

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union