France and Germany on Thursday attempted to persuade EU leaders to relaunch regular meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a reset strategy in a controversial bid that threatens to divide the 27-member bloc, particularly the Baltic states.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the stability of Europe required a dialogue with Russia, noting that an engagement with Putin "is necessary for the stability of the European continent. But he also conceded that “it will be demanding because we will not give up any of our values".
Macron statement came shortly after he arrived in Brussels for an EU summit aimed at discussing major challenges confronting the bloc, including the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery and external relations.
A day before the summit, Berlin and Paris put forward a last-minute proposal for the bloc to contemplate the idea of a potential summit with Putin in the wake of US President Joe Biden's sit-down with him in Geneva last week.
"It is not enough for the American president to talk to the Russian president," she said, stressing that the EU too "must also create different formats for talks".
The EU has not held a summit with Putin since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and has imposed several layers of sanctions on Russia.
Responding to the Franco-German initiative, Moscow said Putin was a "supporter" of the proposal, which would potentially revive a regular fixture that was frozen in 2014 after the takeover of Crimea by Russia.
Resistance from some EU ranks
But Merkel and Macron face resistance from numerous EU member states – especially in eastern Europe – who were blindsided by the push.
Reporting from Brussels shortly before the start of the summit, FRANCE 24’s Dave Keating said there was a “very mixed reaction” within the bloc to the latest proposal. “A lot of EU leaders are very angry about this proposal," he explained. "Several feel that it’s pretentious for the leaders of France and Germany to think that they could meet with Putin and speak for all of the EU ... a lot of countries think that this meeting shouldn’t be happening at all, particularly the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – and Poland.”
In their remarks to reporters ahead of the summit, a number of European leaders expressed misgivings over the initiative, said Keating. “Estonia’s prime minister [Kaja Kallas] coming into the summit building said she wants to hear from France and Germany what exactly has changed in terms of Russia’s behaviour to warrant this suggested opening of dialogue. We also had Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying that if Merkel and Macron want to meet with Putin, he won’t object, but he himself would never meet with Putin. Asked why, he said, 'one word: MH17' – that’s the airliner carrying Dutch passengers that was downed over eastern Ukraine by Russian separatists in 2014,” Keating explained.
Standing firm and engaging
The Merkel-Macron plan insists the EU has to stand firm and united on Moscow, but should look to engage with the Kremlin on issues of mutual interest such as climate change, health, the Iran nuclear deal and conflicts in Syria and Libya.
EU ambassadors failed to agree a common position on the summit proposal late on Wednesday and left it for the leaders to hammer out the details.
Proposed draft conclusions put forward by Berlin and Paris for the EU summit say the bloc "will review the existing formats of dialogue with Russia, including at Leaders' level".
But they also set out that leaders will ask the European Commission "to present options for additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions" to push back against "any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)