BERLIN, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Energy security tops the agenda at what could be a disappointing summit between the European Union and Russia this weekend in Portugal.
Relations between Brussels and Moscow aren’t exactly ecstatic these days.
Leaders on both sides have sworn to a "constructive" atmosphere before Russian President Vladimir Putin and several of his key ministers meet with their EU counterparts in an 18th-century palace in Mafra, a small town some 30 miles north of Lisbon. Yet behind the scenes, diplomats are unable and unwilling to hide the differences that have built up over the past two years due to disputes over energy security, trade, human rights, Iran and lately the Kosovo.
Relying on information from a senior EU diplomat, Russian business daily Kommersant said the Mafra summit "may as well have been canceled if it wasn’t for a long-standing tradition of EU-Russia meetings every six months."
"This is probably the weirdest Russia-EU summit in the recent time," a high-ranking EU official told the newspaper. "Moscow and Brussels share a lot of argument and few common points, so it’s not even clear how they could discuss cooperation. It would have been logical to make a break, skip this summit and when problems get solved next year and elections are over in Russia, we could start speaking about concrete matters. But nothing can be done: Tradition binds us to hold summits twice a year."
While the Mafra summit is expected to yield little progress on some of the most contentious disputes, it will at least touch on one of the issues that both powers deem most -- Europe’s new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia, the body's third-largest trading partner after the United States and China, which will include a key chapter on energy security cooperation.
Last year, talks about an update of the decade-old trade agreement between the EU and Russia failed because Russia's import ban on Polish agricultural products prompted Warsaw to veto any progress.
Russia is Europe’s largest single supplier of oil and gas; with crude prices (which are linked to gas prices in Europe) having increased over the past years, Russia has turned into an energy power determined to flex its resource muscles.
With the new partnership agreement, Europe aims to improve energy security; Russia, doing its part to stall the agreement, has so far refused to sign the Energy Charter, an agreement the EU has advertised for greater bilateral energy security.
Politicians have expressed hope the meat-ban issue can be resolved to update the partnership agreement before it runs out at the end of this year, especially in the wake of victory of a pro-European party in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland.
The new Polish government hasn’t been formed yet, however, and Poland and the Baltic states have once again refused to send their representatives to the summit.
In Moscow, politicians blame a European hostility toward Russia for the lack of progress. The Kremlin is especially irritated about new plans to reform the EU’s domestic energy market. Unveiled last month, the reform draft includes a provision dubbed the "Gazprom Clause," which bans non-European countries from buying into the continental grid unless an agreement is struck between that company’s government and Brussels.
The provision would only clear the state-controlled Russian energy monopolist Gazprom if it played by market rules. The clause is also seen as a nod toward Moscow’s reluctance to allow EU companies to access to Russian pipelines.
A key role to smoothen the edges in that particular dispute will fall to EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, who observers say may be willing to offer concessions to reach a compromise.
Yet such a compromise surely would be in danger if the EU criticizes Russia too overtly; Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have urged EU leaders to firmly raise what the groups call the Kremlin's worsening human rights record, but such -- albeit justified -- reminders have in the past only led to a further dampening of EU-Russian relations.
"We don’t want to listen to any lectures," was the clear tenor from Moscow ahead of the summit, and expect the atmosphere to turn sour if Brussels ignores that.
So for real progress, Europe may have to wait until next May, when Russia, headed by a new president, hosts the next summit.