European leaders have arrived in Brussels for a two-day summit to discuss Covid-19, economic recovery, migration and relations with Turkey and Russia. France and Germany have reportedly called for a new EU strategy of closer engagement with Moscow, angering some countries.
On the eve of the EU summit, the Financial Times reported that "Germany and France called for a strategy of closer engagement" with Russia, quoting diplomats who said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, "wanted the EU to consider inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin" to a summit with EU leaders. The FT says that other European allies were caught "unawares".
The issue of Russia will dominate EU discussions on foreign relations. Tensions with Moscow sharpened this week after reports that Russian pipeline exports of natural gas dropped some 20 percent in 2021, despite growing demand from EU countries, forcing prices up.
A possible EU-Russian summit, following the example of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden last week, may help to calm spirits.
The proposal however was blasted by Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, who said "initiatives to resume EU summits with Russia without seeing any progress from the Russian side will be a dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy".
Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.
Prisoners of conscience
Meanwhile, rights groups called on the EU to strengthen commitment to improvement of fundamental rights and rule of law in Turkey, another topic of discussion at the EU Council meeting.
In a letter to EU Council President Charles Michel, signed by 15 human rights organisations, the EU is asked to "call on the Turkish government to release all prisoners of conscience," implement rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, and point out that non-respect of human rights will slow down an upgrade of the EU-Turkey Customs Union.
EU leaders will also take stock of the work-in-progress of vaccinating citizens against the Covid-19 virus, and, according to a statement issued by the Council "pursue coordination efforts" while scrutinising "remaining obsstacles related to the right of free movement across the EU".
Other topics to be discussed are ways to implement a 672,5 billion euro recovery plan aimed at putting EU countries back on track after the pandemic, and migration issues, including "entry and residence conditions for highly qualified non-EU nationals".
The Council summit is to be followed, on 25 June, by a Euro summit, where EU leaders will discuss economic challenges for the Eurozone "in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis".