EU rejects Merkel-Macron call for leaders’ talks with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via a teleconference call, at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on June 23, 2021.  (PHOTO / BLOOMBERG)

European Union leaders rejected an appeal from Germany and France to hold formal talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, handing Angela Merkel a rare public defeat at what could be her final EU summit as chancellor.

The EU hasn’t held summit talks with Putin since the annexation of Crimea

The proposal was dropped from the final communique following talks that stretched into the wee hours of Friday. EU diplomats had earlier said that some countries in Eastern Europe were prepared to veto the plan, such was the strength of their opposition.

“I would have wished for a more courageous step,” Merkel told reporters as she left the summit venue in Brussels. “Formats and conditions will be developed for talks with Russia. But not at the leaders’ level.”

The EU hasn’t held summit talks with Putin since the annexation of Crimea but Merkel argued that the EU can’t just outsource its relationship with Russia to the White House as Biden looks to establish contact. Her proposal, which was endorsed by President Emmanuel Macron of France, alarmed many other leaders who felt they’d been blindsided.

“The Kremlin does not understand free concessions,” Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Karins said heading into the talks. “The Kremlin understands power politics.”

EU leaders rather took a firm stance and tasked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to set out options on how to respond to any further malign Russian actions and floated the possibility of further restrictive measures, including economic sanctions.

“President Putin was and remains interested in arranging working relations between Moscow and Brussels,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. Moscow viewed the decision not to pursue a summit “with regret” and blamed it on opposition from “the so-called junior Europeans – the Baltic states, Poland.”

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The German proposal was also publicly criticized by Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, who told reporters that he wouldn’t attend any talks with Putin. Romania’s Klaus Iohannis said it’s too early to talk about a summit with Russia and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas said she was surprised to discover the issue was even on the agenda.

One diplomat familiar with discussions said that about a dozen member states had signaled they were uncomfortable either with the idea itself, or the way it emerged at the last minute.

“It’s not enough for the American President Joe Biden to speak with the Russian president – which I very much welcome – but the European Union must also establish a format for talks,” Merkel told Germany’s lower house of parliament before she departed for the EU capital.

The final conclusions on Russia also removed a reference to cooperating with Moscow in the fight against organized crime, a line which had raised eyebrows in some delegations. Instead of a leaders’ summit, the EU agreed to “explore formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia.”

One compromise that was floated could potentially see Charles Michel, who chairs EU leaders’ summits, hold face-to-face talks with Putin along with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, came under fire after a visit to Moscow earlier this year during which he stood quietly and failed to challenge Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as he described the EU as an “unreliable” partner. Some member states had advised Borrell not to make the trip.

Merkel and Macron want to engage with the Russian president while containing his ambitions, and they are seeking to prevent individual member states from stepping out of line when it comes to Russia policy, an EU official said on condition of anonymity.