No one following the course of EU-Russia relations over the last few years can fail to have noticed a recent improvement in their tone and atmosphere. In the second term of his presidency, Vladimir Putin`s approach to the EU ranged from passive aggression to open confrontation. In stark contrast, his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, described his first EU-Russia summit as "sincere, neighbourly", an assessment shared by EU leaders.
This relationship is obviously in its honeymoon phase and we therefore need to be cautious. Its durability will be tested in the autumn, when the EU and Russia begin in earnest to work out the details for a new "strategic partnership". Does Medvedev have the authority to move beyond a change of tone and agree real progress on substance, or is he merely the acceptable face of Putinism, a congenial frontman for an otherwise unchanging regime? Understandably, there is willingness to give him a chance.
The EU wants close and friendly relations with Russia in order to deal with issues of common interest, from climate change and energy security to security policy and the stability of the European neighbourhood. What that shouldn`t mean is a willingness to pursue agreement at any price. Russia has taken a pronounced authoritarian turn since the current EU-Russia agreement was negotiated in 1997. It has also been increasingly willing to use coercive methods in its relations with other states, including the UK and some other members of the EU. We cannot skirt round these issues if we want to stand up for our values and interests.
As a prosperous bloc of nearly 500 million citizens, the EU ought to find it relatively easy to maintain balanced and healthy relations with a neighbour of 130 million. The EU accounts for 52% of Russian trade, whereas Russia accounts for only 8% of EU trade. But converting that advantage into real political leverage requires the EU to behave in a much more disciplined and unity. The Kremlin has found it too easy to play a game of divide and rule and maintain an upper hand in its relations with the EU.
The EU`s problems with Russia stem not just from a divergence of interests, but also of political values, at least as far as the ruling elite is concerned. Putin`s authoritarian model of government is now posed as a serious long-term alternative to European style multi-party democracy. Indeed, Russia has often seemed to be at the forefront of efforts to roll back the tide of democratic change in the post-Soviet space and beyond. Within the UN security council, the Russian government has acted in concert with China to give impunity to regimes such as Zimbabwe and Sudan.
There will always be those prepared to ignore difficult issues for an easy life, but they will not be the only voices in this debate. While much of the focus has been on the views of member states, few have so far taken account of the fact that the European parliament also has to give its assent before a new EU-Russia agreement can be sealed. This should not be taken for granted. The parliament has its own views that will have to be addressed as part of this process.
The most important of these are democracy and human rights, where a serious retreat from European standards has become evident in Russia in recent years. The current EU-Russia agreement contains unambiguous commitments to support multi-party democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But instead of the progress we were promised, we have seen a very serious erosion of freedoms across the board. A priority must be improvements in the substance and procedures of EU-Russia human rights consultations, with independent NGOs from Russia and the EU given a formal role. We need to give Russian NGOs a voice they are increasingly denied at home.
A second area of concern relates to energy and Russia`s increasingly important role as an energy supplier. Instead of becoming an area of cooperation, it has become one of tension, with many EU countries concerned at Russia`s apparent desire to use monopolistic advantage to secure political leverage over the countries around it. The framework for EU-Russia energy relations must be the energy charter treaty, which Russia and all EU member states have signed and are legally bound by. This provides essential guarantees on market access, security of supply, transit, transparency and investor protection that Russia is clearly not respecting.
It is hoped that the new agreement will make progress towards an EU-Russia free trade area. If this is framed and implemented properly, it would certainly yield major benefits for all concerned, but we have to be sure that the conditions are in place to make it a reality. The European parliament has been particularly critical of new rules, signed into law by Vladimir Putin in the last days of his presidency, designed to restrict foreign ownership in 42 strategic areas of the Russian economy. Of course we should open the European single market to third countries, but only if this is done on a reciprocal basis.
One final consideration is the fact that Russia and the EU share a common neighbourhood in eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Both sides should see a joint interest in underwriting the political and economic progress of countries in these regions, but it is not always clear that Russia is willing to play a constructive role. Instead of acting to end frozen conflicts, Russia`s intervention in Georgia has been highly destabilising; energy resources have been used coercively; autocratic rule in Belarus has been encouraged; Serbian rejectionism in relations to Kosovo has been supported; and now Russian leaders seem to be questioning the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Can we be optimistic about the prospects for agreement against such a backdrop of difficult and contentious issues? It is certainly a good thing that relations between the EU and Russia are once again being conducted on open and friendly terms. Whether this lasts depends ultimately on whether President Medvedev is able and willing to convert fine words into good deeds. The important thing is that EU leaders must not trim their ambitions or neglect their own values in order to secure a quick but empty deal. That approach may create the illusion of harmony, but only at the cost of worse relations in the longer term.