President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy: Visa-free travel is common goal of EU and Russia
President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy has given an interview to Interfax‘ correspondent Olga Golovanova ahead of the Russia-EU summit due on June 3-4 in St. Petersburg in which he speaks about the upcoming summit, EU-Russia relations, pressing issues on the international agenda, such as Iran and Syria, as well as EU sanctions on Belarus ex-Ukrainian Prime Minster Yulia Timoshenko case.Question: Mr. President, what are your expectations from the upcoming EU-Russia summit in Strelna outside St. Petersburg, which will take place shortly after the presidential elections in Russia and Vladimir Putin‘s inauguration and return to the Kremlin?
Answer: The summit will be an important occasion to run through the broad range of issues that today make up the EU-Russia relationship. The main aim should be to confirm the past years results in the EU-Russia partnership and set the course for the coming years.
On the substance let me highlight, firstly, that we will need to discuss pressing global and international issues, such as measures to deal with the economic and financial crisis and current international issues, how to end the violence in Syria and how to deal with Iran‘s nuclear program.
Second, I hope that we can confirm the common aim of deepening the Strategic Partnership between EU and Russia, including trade and economic cooperation, justice and home affairs, cooperation on education, science and technology and facilitated people-to-people contacts.
With Russia soon to join WTO this opens new possibilities and this should open the road to continued and deeper cooperation. The EU will reconfirm at the summit that the best basis for a closer partnership will be a comprehensive new agreement, including trade and investments. This should become the basis for our cooperation for the years to come.
Thirdly, I see the further development of the Partnership for Modernization as a priority. The EU is ready to engage in the full spectrum. This should be a partnership that covers the economy, society and the rule of law. A vital contribution from civil society, should in this respect, be seen as integral part for real modernization.
Fourthly, the principles and values in our strategic partnership are also being seen by the European public on the basis of developments in political fields. In this context, the issue of human rights and the rule of law will, like in previous summits, be on the agenda.
Q.: The summit in Strelna will be held amid a crisis in the Eurozone. When do you think Europe could see more financial and economic stability? Will the summit participants discuss the crisis and does Brussels expect any assistance or support from Russia in this respect?
A.: On the economic issues let me say that a comprehensive set of decisions and measures has been taken and will be taken by the Eurozone members on growth, jobs and financial stability. We will increase competitiveness through structural reforms and targeted investments and create financial stability through sound public finances. Obviously this is a long process. Meanwhile let me add that the fundamentals of EU-Russia economic relations are strong and developing to the benefit of both. The turnover in trade was more than 300 billion Euro in 2011 with both imports and exports reaching their highest level ever. Russia is the EU‘s third trading partner (after the US and China) - making up about 10% of EU external trade.
The EU remains by far Russia‘s largest trading partner with slightly below 50% of Russia‘s bilateral trade, well ahead of China (10%) or Ukraine (5%). Our economies are therefore highly interdependent and this interdependence is here to stay: So we have a common interest in tackling the crisis in a sustainable and job friendly way.
Q.: When do you think the EU and Russia could finish negotiations on a new partnership and cooperation agreement? Could the EU agree to a compromise with Russia or will it insist that the new agreement stipulate some provisions going beyond Russia‘s commitments as a WTO member?
A.: There has been good progress in the negotiations except for on trade and investments, including energy. Considering our strong trade relationship, it is only logical that we must include trade aspects. It has been rather slow over the past years. Now Russia is soon to join the WTO we believe this creates new dynamics for our relations. There is much we can do to further facilitate trade bilaterally. If we want to realize the full potential in our relations we should create a legally-binding framework providing predictability and, when we have differences, an effective way of solving them.
We talk about the full potential between Russia‘s more than 140 million people and EU‘s half a billion inhabitants and all the companies, organizations and groups in both our great geographic areas. We really should agree a comprehensive framework that people, organizations and businesses are looking for when they make decisions and long-term plans.
Q.: Do you think the EU and Russia could complete joint steps toward visa-free travel by the end of this year and start negotiations on concluding such an agreement at the next summit in December 2012? Could these negotiations start in 2013 simultaneously with the completion of the joint steps? What would you respond to your Russian partners suggesting that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi would be an ideal time and occasion for introducing visa-free travel between the EU and Russia?
A.: Let me be clear: Visa-free travel is our common goal. But we need to have the necessary conditions in place. Let‘s focus on establishing these conditions rather than discussing timelines. At the EU-Russia summit in December 2011 in Brussels we agreed the ‘Common Steps Towards Visa Free Travel‘. It is a list of actions that the EU and Russia undertook to implement to achieve the objective of visa freedom. These actions revolve around four areas: document security, illegal migration, public order, security and judicial cooperation as well as external relations, including human rights. Implementation has just started and is proceeding smoothly. Obviously this will require some time as both sides need to make sure that the conditions will be right for future visa free travel.
But let me also add that in the meantime we‘re very close to agreeing further facilitation of our visa procedures in the context of the ongoing negotiations of a visa facilitation agreement. Last year 5.6 million Schengen-visas were issued to Russians, of these almost half were multiple-entry. Very soon we could make visa procedures a lot easier for many ordinary Russians and Europeans wanting to travel.
Q.: The EU countries are continuing the implementation of the Third Energy Package. Russia is trying to protect its interests in this process. In particular, it has proposed signing an agreement on trans-frontier infrastructural projects to guarantee investments in the South Stream pipeline construction. Is Brussels willing to negotiate this document with Moscow?
A.: The Third Energy Package is EU-legislation has been in force since March 2011 and it‘s regulating the EU-market for the purpose of creating competitive, open and interconnected European markets for gas and electricity. The EU has liberalized other networks such as telecommunication already in the past. The European Commission and the Russian side are discussing in detail the implementation of this important legislation in the EU-Russia energy dialogue.
The Third Package ensures equal treatment of all market actors, including Russian companies, and therefore provides significant new opportunities also for Russian companies.
Q.: You are probably aware that the EU‘s decision to impose economic sanctions on Belarus was negatively taken in Moscow, as, amid growing integration between the economies of Belarus, Russia and the Customs Union and expected transition to the Eurasian Economic Union, they could directly affect Russian interests. Some high-ranking Russian officials have said this move will not remain unanswered. Could the EU revise its approach toward Belarus in this context and take Russia‘s concerns into consideration?
A.: First, regional economic integration projects such as the Customs Union, and the idea of the Eurasian Economic Union, if based on the WTO-rules could lead to positive contribution to trade, prosperity and cooperation. As long as Kazakhstan and Belarus are not part of the WTO, the EU will not be in a position to negotiate trade and investment agreements with the Customs Union. Pragmatic solutions can, however, be used so that we can continue our bilateral negotiations with Russia.
As to Belarus, let me stress that EU has been for many years ready to develop closer relations between Belarus and EU. We expect that our partners do have basic conditions on human rights, democracy and the rule of law in place. It is up to Belarus to secure this. The EU‘s restrictive measures against Belarus are strictly targeted against those responsible for the repression in Belarus and those directly associated with them, as well as persons and entities benefiting from the regime or supporting it. We make every effort to conceive our restrictive measures so as to minimize any unintended effects. It is really up to Belarus to improve the situation.
Q.: Does the EU plan to ease or, on the contrary, toughen its sanctions against Syria and Iran? What would you respond to those who believe that, by imposing such sanctions, the EU is in fact seeking to cause the regimes in these countries to change, while in reality the sanctions are affecting ordinary people? Will the EU continue its sanction policy toward these countries?
A.: On Syria, we must see an end to the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria. The EU will continue to impose restrictive measures as long as the repression will continue. These sanctions are targeted and contain exemptions for humanitarian purposes. Ordinary people in Syria today are affected by the climate of violence there, not by sanctions destined to change that.
On Iran we are pursuing a negotiated and peaceful solution to concerns over Iran‘s nuclear program. Aim of the sanctions is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, and not to provoke a regime change in Iran. Keeping, lifting, or softening the sanctions will depend from Iran‘s behavior either abiding to its international nuclear obligations or continuing violating them. The EU is coordinating on behalf of the international community the efforts to address the Iranian nuclear issues.
The international community stands firm, clear and united in seeking a swift diplomatic resolution of the concerns on the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran‘s nuclear program, based on the [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty] NPT, and the full implementation of UN Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions. We expect Iran to take concrete and practical steps to urgently meet the concerns of the international community, to build confidence and to meet its international obligations.
Q.: The EU is expected to impose an oil embargo on Iran starting July 1, 2012. Experts warn that some European countries could experience shortages in energy resources and that the oil price could jump to $160 per barrel. Is the EU considering the possibility of increasing oil supplies from other sources, such as Russia, to make up for such potential shortages?
A.: Actually the oil embargo is already in force with the exception of existing contracts which can be executed until 1 July.
Q.: UEFA Euro 2012 is drawing near. Can the European Union really boycott the matches and other events to take place in Ukraine because of the situation surrounding former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko? Will you go to Ukraine yourself, at least to attend the Final in Kyiv? Could Tymoshenko‘s trial delay the signature and ratification of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine and involve other restrictive measures?
A.: There is no question of the EU ‘boycotting‘ this tournament - in fact we wish for a successful competition that will help to put Ukraine on the map and bring Ukrainians and visiting fans from EU countries closer. The EU and the European financial institutions that we support have done quite a lot to help with the preparations for the competition.
However, I am very disappointed and very concerned about recent examples of politically-motivated justice in Ukraine, of which I‘m afraid the Tymoshenko case is just one. The EU has very high ambitions for its relations with Ukraine. We have negotiated an association agreement including a deep and comprehensive free trade area - probably the most complex and comprehensive agreement we have ever prepared with a third country. The EU and I personally have given a clear message that we will not be ready to sign that agreement until we are confident that Ukraine is living within the spirit of the political association we have conceived, and that of course means active and visible respect for core EU values such as the rule of law. For now, there is no question of restrictive measures.