8 Aug 2020

EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer: Deteriorating human rights situation in Russia potentially leads to further divide in EU-Russia relations

Markus Ederer

Markus Ederer
Photo: EU Delegation to Russia

EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer has given an exclusive interview to Interfax special correspondents Renat Abdullin and Vasily Antipin. He speaks about the prospects for opening EU borders to Russia, the future of the EU-Russia relations, the Ukrainian settlement, and prospects for Europe's economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Question: Since July 1, the European Union has been refreshing the list of countries with which it recommends opening the borders after they were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The last update of the list was on July 30, and Russia was again not included [the interview took place on August 4. The list of countries for which travel restrictions should be lifted was updated on August 7. The number of countries on the list fell to 11]. What criteria should Moscow meet in order to secure the opening of EU borders for Russians? How far is Moscow from meeting these criteria? What is the expected timeframe for opening 'a window to Europe?'

Answer: As the EU Ambassador I would, of course, be very happy to see Russian travelers back to the EU. As you know, Russians are the biggest group receiving Schengen visas worldwide. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 situation and in the framework of our response, we had to limit travel to the EU for the time being particularly for nonessential travel to the EU. By the way, so did Russia, and EU citizens also cannot access Russia as travelers. But talking about people-to-people contacts, Russian students who have secured a place at a university can travel. It's amongst the exceptions, it is considered to be an essential travel, I am glad to say.

The criteria to determine third countries' nationals access to the EU relate very much to the epidemiological situation and, of course, containment measures. And when we come to the list of July 30 you have mentioned, it covers 12 countries now, which fulfil the main epidemiological criteria. This is an incidence rate equal or below the EU incidence rate – as you know the incidence rate describes the number of infections over 14 days per 100,000 inhabitants. The current incidence rate relevant for this list in the EU stands at around 16, whereas the incidence rate in Russia stands well above the EU Member States rate. This already indicates why Russia was not on the list. Other criteria are the trend, whether the trend in a particular country is stable or infections are declining, and as I said, the quality of the containment measures.

When travel from Russia to the EU will again be possible? Of course, that depends on the dynamic of the pandemic not only in Russia, but also in the EU. I can tell you that this “white list” we are talking about is being reviewed regularly. Therefore there will be more chances in the future to get on this list while the EU is following the epidemiological situation in relevant countries.

Q.: Is it possible to open the borders with only certain EU Member States, or should the decision concern the EU as a whole?

A.: The creation and regular adaptation of the “white list” is taken as a collective EU decision. However, the Member States do remain responsible for the implementation of the commonly agreed EU recommendations when it comes to lifting travel restrictions. Individual Member States should not decide individually on exceptions before that has been coordinated amongst all Member States. Again, national authorities have the ultimate decision-making power on opening or closing national borders and certainly on introducing national quarantine measures. As you know, different Member States have different requirements when you enter from a high-risk country. Some have mandatory quarantine and you can enter other countries with a test which is not older than 48 hours. That remains the prerogative of each individual Member State.

Q.: You mentioned that a country cannot make an individual decision on opening the borders. So, am I right to understand that it is impossible that Russia and for example Hungary and Montenegro will open their borders for each other, while other Member States won't?

A.: As I said, these recommendations are being adopted collectively by all Member States on a regular basis. But then a Member State has the ultimate authority to decide on closing the borders even to countries on the “white list” or to open its borders for countries not on the ”white list”.

Q.: Russia recently made several legislative changes that concerned human rights activists. In particular, the priority of Russian national law over international law was nailed down, and marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman. How does the EU view the human rights situation in Russia? Does it play a negative role in EU-Russia relations? And could you please make any comment on the Ivan Safronov case?

A.: The Russian Federation as much as the EU Member States have signed up to identical international obligations, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the OSCE acquis. I can tell you that in a recent conversation between [Russian Foreign] Minister [Sergei] Lavrov and 27 EU Member States Ambassadors, I suggested that the deteriorating situation of human rights and the rule of law in Russia as we see it, in particular the freedom of speech, the freedom of media, the freedom of assembly, is not only incompatible with Russia's aforementioned obligations, but also potentially leads to a further divide in the EU-Russia relations.

As to Article 79 of the Russian Constitution, which was also then discussed, which provides for the primacy of the Russian Constitution over decisions of interstate bodies based on international treaties, let us not forget that the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe had considered this provision incompatible with Russia's international obligations, and recommended that this provision be removed or the wording amended. This opinion follows the former finding by the Venice Commission that the power of the Russian Constitutional Court to declare a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights non-executable as such contradicts the obligations of the Russian Federation under the European Convention on Human Rights. You may understand that these developments are worrisome for the EU.

As to the second change you mentioned, the European Union will always continue to speak up for equal rights of all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation.

On the Safronov case you mentioned, the proceedings are classified. I am not privy to more information than the Russian public. From the EU point of view, this individual and his lawyers should enjoy the right to a fair trial in line with the rule of law.

Q.: Speaking on EU-Russia relations, the main impediments to their development are the situation in eastern Ukraine and sanctions. Meanwhile, the implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures, to which the sanctions are linked, is dragging on. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently said that the "Minsk agreements are not dead yet, but are surviving on a ventilator provided by French and German colleagues." In your opinion, is it possible to secure any progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and, consequently, the easing of sanctions? Will anti-Russian restrictions be in place for a long time, or is the EU ready to reconsider tying sanctions to progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements?

A.: The situation is complex. The EU has been calling on all sides to deliver on their obligations flowing from the Minsk Package of Measures. Progress on and the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which are to bring settlement to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, is a key element for the EU for any substantial change in its relations with Russia. This has been and will remain EU's positon.

You said there is no progress at all. I would suggest that the current reconfirmed ceasefire agreement in the Trilateral Contract Group (TCG), if and when it holds, would certainly be a good basis to build upon and move forward on the implementation of the rest of the obligations according to the Minsk Agreements.

However, we observe a recent development which causes concern. This is what I would describe as Russia's attempts to revisit and possibly redefine its role in both the Normandy Four Format and the Trilateral Contact Group. The latter, as you know, consists of the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine. The overall attitude of the Russian Federation's delegation at the latest round of the presidential advisors’ talks in the Normandy Format in Berlin and then Dmitry Kozak's recent letter to his counterpart in Germany are only some of the signs on the wall. From the very beginning - and I was part of the German negotiating team at that time before I switched to the EU diplomatic service - Russia was a member of the Normandy Four and the Trilateral Contact Group as a party to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. I would say that this fact runs against the notion which we increasingly hear from our Russian partners that fighting in Donbas represents an internal conflict in Ukraine. I think this constellation also entails a high degree of responsibilities on the Russian side for the resolution of this conflict.

Now, on July 31, [Russian] President's spokesman [Dmitry] Peskov made a statement officially denying suggestions that Russia would quit the Normandy Four format. This statement, I believe, was important, timely and welcomed, because any remote suggestion that Russia would withdraw from its responsibilities in the Normandy Four format or the Trilateral Contact Group, or a “Rus-exit” from these formats would cause adverse effects for the dispute settlement process.

Q.: So, the sanctions are not forever and the situation would change at some point in the future?

A.: Lifting sanctions and any substantial change in the EU-Russia relations are tied to progress on and the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. If we see that, there will be a chance for a paradigm change in our relations towards Russia.

Q.: The Ukrainian Parliament has recently adopted a statement that any special status for Donbas can be granted only after the Ukrainian authorities establish control over border with Russia. What's the EU position on this?

A.: I think that everybody should go back to and revisit the Minsk documents. They speak a very clear language, at least in some instances, on the sequence of steps. I'm not privy to the discussions in the Normandy Format anymore. The answer to your question would depend on what position the representatives of Ukraine in the Normandy Four and TCG hold.

Q.: Just a few days ago the new head of Ukraine's delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said that would seek United States' involvement in the Normandy Format. What's the EU's position?

A.: I would also refer this question to the Normandy Four parties, and the EU is not a party of the format. It is up to them. But so far no change has been made which reflects the current position of the Normandy Four.

Q.: What is your assessment of the prospects for developing EU-Russia relations? Is it possible that relations in spheres not affected by sanctions will improve? Could the two sides take stock of their relations? Are meetings to this end possible at the highest level in the near future?

A.: The EU is currently taking stock of its relations with Russia. As I have repeatedly said, it takes two to tango. It would be advantageous, if Russia were engaged in a similar stock-taking process of its relations with the EU, because that would possibly facilitate a rational discussion on the way forward, beyond calls to revert to the "old normal".

There may, however, be new areas of cooperation, such as combating climate change or in the field of public health.

There is no lack of high level exchanges. There have been meetings and discussions between [European Commission] President [Ursula] von der Leyen, [European Council] President [Charles] Michel and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin. Recently, in a conversation between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Josep Borrell, the [EU] High Representative [for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,] and the Vice President of the [European] Commission, a visit to Moscow was explored once the Covid-19 situation allows. I think this shows that despite all odds, political and Covid-related, both sides are trying to keep up functioning channels of communication. These efforts can and must be strengthened.

Q.: Are there any contacts or discussions regarding the date of High Representative Borrell's visit? Could it happen in a month, two months...

A.: There is no planning at this point because the Corona situation is what it is.

Q.: Could the economy become the basis for restoring relations? How could the WTO decision siding with Russia as far as the so-called 'energy cost adjustments' are concerned influence EU-Russia economic relations? Will the EU appeal the decision?

A.: Regarding our economic relations, we are concerned over the tendency of an increasingly inward-looking Russian economic policy, given that the EU is by far the biggest trade partner for Russia and EU companies, even more importantly, are the biggest providers of foreign direct investments. Plus we have the unresolved Delpal's case [French citizen Philippe Delpal is implicated in the Baring Vostok case into the embezzlement of 2.5 billion rubles of the Vostochny Bank and has been under house arrest since August 2019], which impacts on the business climate for EU companies. These developments cast a shadow on our economic relations.

The WTO decision, I think, plays a minor role here. If I understand correctly, the panel has held that the EU legal framework was acceptable but the implementation was flawed. The EU will analyze this decision and then decide on its future course of action.

Q.: One of the positive elements in such cooperation will be combating Covid-19. If Russia is the first to develop a vaccine, will the EU be interested in getting it from Russia, or there will be some sort of legal issues?

A.: When we talk about cooperation on health, it's a broader issue. The European Union and Russia are already cooperating on other virus-related health issues, such as Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. We have worked before Corona on a one-to-two day conference on health issues here in Moscow which will now take place towards the end of the year. This has the support of [Russian Health] Minister Murashko and [EU] Commissioner [for Health and Food Safety Stella] Kyriakides. And the same holds true, by the way, for climate change. We had prepared a conference in March with the Moscow’s School of Management Skolkovo that is now also rescheduled towards the end of the year. There is a lot of interest from Russian stakeholders for it to take place. I think these may prove to be promising fields for future EU-Russia cooperation.

As to a vaccine, I have to refer you to the latest statements by the WHO. There has been very little information, in particular scientific publications, on Russia's vaccines. There are, obviously, many countries, many institutes working on a vaccine, and I cannot predict who arrives there first and who will present a reliable vaccine.

Q.: Another positive element in the EU-Russia relations could be the easing of visa requirements, making it easier for EU citizens to get to Russia and for Russians to get to the EU. Is any progress is possible to that end?

A.: We welcome the extension of Russia’s electronic visa regime from the pilot zones to the whole country starting next year. We see it as a positive development.

There are also regular talks under the current EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement, where the EU is asking that European citizens are treated equally well as Russian citizens. As a matter of fact, 80% of all visas granted to Russian nationals by all Member States are multiple entry visas, while Russian consulates grant only slightly more than 20% multiple entry visas to EU citizens. This should be balanced. Also, in the EU you've got some extra time to exit the country, whereas in Russia there are very severe consequences when you overstay a visa. So, as you see, there is some potential to improve the visa situation.

Q.: Residents of Crimea cannot get EU visas in Russia, is it possible that this will change?

A.: The EU has never recognized and will not recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. This means that Russian passports issued in Crimea by Russian authorities after the annexation shall not be recognized and shall not be accepted for applications for Schengen visa.

Crimean residents can still obtain a Schengen visa. For that they would need either travel documents issued there by the Russian authorities before the illegal annexation or Ukrainian travel documents. In both cases, their application for a Schengen visa must be presented to EU Member States consulates in Ukraine, not in Russia. 

By the way, if a Crimean resident holds a Ukrainian biometric passport, he/she can travel visa-free to the Schengen area, because there is visa freedom for Ukrainians with biometric Ukrainian passports since 2017.

Q.: On July 30, the Council of the EU decided to introduce sanctions against a number of Russian citizens for their alleged involvement in cyberattacks against the interests of the European Union. This was the first time the EU imposed sanctions over cyberattacks. To what extent is the EU concerned about Russia's cyber activity? Do countries other than Germany take note of it? Is there any dialogue with Moscow on this issue?

A.: This is the first time the cyber-sanctions regime has been used based on a legal act from 2019. This cyber sanctions regime is a horizontal regime, which means it is not country-specific, and it is a regime that targets individuals and entities which are involved in significant cyberattacks on EU and Member States institutions, entities and interests. In this decision, which you have mentioned, Russian individuals and one state entity have been sanctioned for a cyberattack against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, the Netherlands. And that already shows that other Member States beside the one you have mentioned have suffered such acts. We are, to answer your question, concerned about malicious activities by Russian actors in the cyberspace. The EU has voiced such concerns more than once with high-ranking Russian interlocutors.

Q.: How do you perceive U.S. threats to impose exterritorial sanctions on participants in the Nord Stream 2 project? Has the EU formed a consolidated position on the U.S. sanctions? Is a joint EU response to these sanctions possible, as Germany proposes?

A.: The EU common position was expressed by High Representative and Vice President Borrell not long ago. When he was referring, inter alia, to Nord Stream 2 he expressed deep concern "at the growing use of sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, by the United States against European companies and interests". In his statement, he also made clear that the EU considers the extraterritorial application of sanctions to be contrary to international law. He added that European policies should be determined here in Europe and not by third countries.

As to countermeasures, the European Commission is working on a "Communication on Strengthening the EU's Financial and Economic Sovereignty." That Communication is expected to be published before the end of the year and will prepare the ground, amongst other objectives, for a reinforced sanctions mechanism that will also ensure that the EU becomes more resilient to exterritorial sanctions by third countries.

Q.: The leaders of the EU Member States managed to agree a new seven-year budget and economic recovery plan at the summit in late July. According to media reports, the summit wasn't easy, while the proposed budget restrictions have already been criticized, in particular, by the European Parliament. How seriously has the pandemic impacted the EU's economy? How many years will it take to restore the economy in accordance with the measures that have been taken?

A.: On your second question. The EU Member States, just as all other countries in the world, have been hit severely by the pandemic. The European Commission recently provided a forecast according to which the GDP by the end of the year in 2020 will drop by 8% in the EU, and as to recovery, there would be a rebound of about 6% in 2021. Certainly, the recovery package has been designed to speed up that recovery. You referred to the European Council [decision], which as you said was difficult. I would say yes, it was not easy, it took four days, but I would also suggest that the results are truly historical. In particular when you look at these four days of deliberations  which resulted in an overall package of 1.8 trillion euros (more than 155 trillion rubles), for both the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) - the budget of the EU for the next seven years - and a 750 billion euro recovery package, which we call Next Generation EU. Also given that this result was achieved with 27 Member States sitting around a table for decisions which in other countries are taken by one government, this was a huge achievement.

But what I would like to draw your attention to is something even more important. What we have seen is a paradigm change in EU policies to come. Let me give you three examples for that.

For the first time the EU Commission, backed by the Member States, will access capital markets for such a massive amount of funds, mostly for the recovery package of 750 billion euro. Also, for the first time a part of these funds - the majority of these funds - will be made available as grants for reforms and investments to Member States most affected.

Third, for the first time the EU will repay these funds through what is called its own resources. Those will be levies on plastic, on hi-tech companies and then eventually what we call the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). These decisions, of course, will be subject to approval by the European Parliament.

I believe that this recovery package is also a response to those, including in Russia, who in the first phase of the crisis have criticized the lack of solidarity in the EU. Some even saw the EU already falling apart. But I would suggest that the magic of the European project still works, as President Michel coined it after the summit. Once again Europe emerges from a crisis stronger and more united.

Q.: In December 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit, the EU adopted the Green Deal, intended to make Europe 'climate-neutral' by 2050. How will the pandemic influence the deal's implementation? Is its implementation provided for in the budget the EU agreed on? Are plans to introduce a "carbon tax" still in place, and when might that be introduced?

A.: The Summit results ultimately enable the EU to deliver on its Green Deal. Why I am saying this? In both the MFF and the Next Generation EU tool, 30% of the overall funds are to be deployed on climate-related spending. At the same time, the rules for the implementation and  various budget items have also been set by the European Council, as I said, subject to approval by the European Parliament. Now the pandemic has not only been the reason for the Next Generation EU package, it also influences, of course, its implementation. It will be spent very much according to which Member States have suffered the most serious consequences from this pandemic. Therefore, the distribution mechanism will take into account how much an EU Member State has been hit by the pandemic and the most economically affected will receive the lion share of those funds.

You asked about the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. It is to finance in part the repayment of the funds raised by the European Commission on the capital markets. Currently, there is a public consultation underway in which all stakeholders, including by the way from Russia, can express themselves on the imminent CBAM, which will then feed into an impact assessment of such a mechanism. The impact assessment will inform the ensuing EU legislative process, which is scheduled to deliver a result by the end of 2022.

Q.: Several years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron came up with the idea to create an EU army that would be independent of the United States and NATO? Is this idea still on the table? How important has it become for the EU to pursue independent defense policy taking into account unpredictable actions of its partners?

A.: We may all be too young to remember the Treaty of the European Defense Community which was signed in 1952, but never ratified. Ever since then the idea of a European Defense Union has inspired many EU leaders. While the competences for security and defense are predominantly with EU Member States, there is a consensus within the EU that it needs to do more for its own security on the way to more strategic autonomy, and for that purpose it also needs necessary military capabilities. Such capabilities would be complementary to NATO's and at the same time would strengthen the European pillar of NATO. That is why the EU has over the last two or three years taken a number of measures, including the introduction of what is called the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). This initiative now unites 47 projects with 25 Member States participating. These projects range from joint helicopter crew training to developing sophisticated underwater intervention capability systems, covering a very broad spectrum.

Q.: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently said in an article for Der Spiegel that only Germany is responsible for beginning of WWII, while other points of view distort history. "Those who sow doubts about this and foist the role of criminal on other nations commit an injustice towards the victims of this war; they exploit history and divide Europe," Maas said. Do you agree with this position? Do you think that 'historical politics' are a stumbling block in revitalizing the EU-Russia dialogue?

A.: Being German myself, I would say that Heiko Maas's article in Der Spiegel is both exemplary and representative of Germany facing the historical facts of WW II, drawing lessons from that dark chapter of its own past and also avoiding the mistakes of the Weimar Republic post WW I. Politicization of history, nationalistic myth building and rewriting of historical facts have often served for domestic political mobilization. At the same time, these have always been a recipe to antagonize countries, often neighbors which share that history. If you read the whole article written at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of WW II, Minister Maas points out what it takes to make remembrance of such a day a unifying experience. He mentions, I quote from his article, "the readiness to integrate the experience of others into our own remembrance, both the victim's pain and the perpetrator's responsibility”; and “the courage to make a clear distinction between victim and perpetrator and between myth and historical fact." This is what he means when reminding that many people in Poland, the Baltic States and other countries in Central, Eastern  and Southeastern Europe look at Victory Day with mixed feelings, because, I quote again "their joy accompanying the victory over National Socialism is tied to the beginning of another form of deprivation of freedom and heteronomy."