3 Jun 2013

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton: EU to review Syrian arms embargo with regard to progress with U.S.-Russian peace conference initiative

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton has given an interview to Interfax‘ correspondent Olga Golovanova on the eve of the Russia-EU summit in Yekaterinburg on June 3-4, in which she speaks about the summit‘s agenda and EU‘s position on arms embargo on Syria, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue.

Question: Mrs. Ashton, what do you expect of the upcoming Russia-EU summit in Yekaterinburg? What issues would the EU like to raise in the first place?

Answer The summit will be an important opportunity to take stock of on-going cooperation between the EU and the Russian Federation in a wide range of areas: in political and security-related areas including human rights, economic and regulatory fields and in technical and scientific cooperation. In the field of judicial cooperation we will sign an agreement in the margins of the summit on preventing the illegal use of drug precursors. Implementation of our very important Partnership for Modernization is on-going.
We are strategic partners to each other and the EU is interested in deepening and strengthening our cooperation. We want a predictable and rules-based relationship based on common commitments. The first step must be to respect and implement commitments already made, in particular WTO accession and related commitments, but also as regards fundamental values and freedoms.
When it comes to our bilateral relations, the EU would like to focus on three main issues at the summit: our negotiations for a new EU-Russia agreement as a solid legal framework for developing our relations in the future, on trade and WTO issues and on fundamental political freedoms, in particular the freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression, to which we are all committed as members of the Council of Europe. We are very interested in hearing our Russian partners’ views on domestic political developments.
As regards international and global issues, our discussions will certainly focus on the dramatic situation in Syria. We will discuss our cooperation on the Middle East peace process, the Iranian nuclear program and the protracted conflicts in our common Neighborhood: in Moldova/Transdniestria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia. We will also review global economic developments and wider cooperation under Russia’s G20 chairmanship.

Q.: Could an agreement further relaxing visa travel and cancelling visas for holders of service passports be signed at the Russia-EU summit in Yekaterinburg? The Russian side argues that the stumbling block is the absence of a political decision on the part of the EU members. Is there any chance such an agreement could be concluded before the summit? If not, when will this agreement be signed?

A.: I believe that simplifying conditions for obtaining visas is in the interest of both sides – we want to facilitate travel by Russian citizens to Europe, especially the ordinary Russian citizens who want to visit Europe for tourism, studies or business; there is also more and more interest among Europeans about Russia, and many EU citizens would like to come here. We started working on an up-graded visa facilitation agreement that would provide for better opportunities for exchanges and contacts between our peoples. A request by Russia to include the holders of service passports has delayed the process: negotiations on technical details are still on-going, but should be completed in the near future. For us it is important to have a good and efficient agreement that works well: we want to ensure mobility between the EU and Russia and therefore need to find a way forward on all issues that could become a hindrance here. I am confident that our negotiators will finalize the work soon. At the same time the EU will also repeat its call on Russia for a moratorium on Russia’s new decree on passenger name records, because that is a sensitive issue in the mobility context. If left unresolved, this issue could lead to a major disruption of our efforts to facilitate travel.

Q.: Do you agree with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in that an announcement can be made very soon that work on the list of joint steps is over and that the doors can thus be opened on talks on visa-free travel and that this goal could be attained by the end of 2014?

A.: The EU and Russia have been seriously working on the implementation of the ‘common steps towards visa-free short term travel‘ since 2011. Technical work on the list of actions that both the EU and Russia undertook to implement to reach this objective is proceeding well and shows the commitment of both sides to achieve results. So far we‘ve been exchanging information about each other‘s regulations and laws on controlling the movement of persons and ensuring basic freedom of movement. This is very important in view of the future visa-free travel arrangement that we will negotiate. It‘s essential to take these preparatory steps very seriously. Once the exchange of factual information has been done, we will have to move to the implementation of the ‘common steps‘, i.e. addressing deficiencies and harmonizing differences. We need to be sure that our citizens, and here I mean both the EU citizens and Russian citizens, can enjoy their freedom of movement in a safe and predictable framework. This will require follow-up work on both sides, but we are committed to achieving the goal of visa-free travel.

Q.: Russia said recently that a new basic agreement could be finally signed in the foreseeable future between Russia and the EU, talks on which have been dragging out for far too long, including in connection with Russia‘s accession to the WTO. Russia is a WTO member now. What obstacles remain, in your opinion, and slow the conclusion of this agreement?

A.: We want to conclude a comprehensive agreement to upd ate and replace the old Partnership and Cooperation Agreement from the 1990-s. This new agreement should include a substantive chapter on trade and economic relations, including energy. As strategic partners and neighbours with interdependent economies and growing trade and investment links, we need to have a bilateral framework in place that goes beyond WTO rules and addresses these issues. Russia is now a WTO member and we believe that WTO membership will be beneficial for Russia, fostering economic diversification and making it more competitive. We hope that Russia is now ready to also make progress when it comes to the new agreement - a more advanced agreement with the EU that will bring the modernization and openness and that our citizens can profit from.

Q.: Does the EU plan to discuss human rights at the summit with Russia? The law on non-governmental organizations, for instance? Are there issues, in principle, that arouse the EU‘s concern in this sphere?

A.: Human rights are the silver thread of the EU‘s foreign policy and therefore constitute an integral part of our discussions with all our strategic partners, so these issues will indeed be addressed at the forthcoming summit. We are addressing developments of concern as much as welcoming progress with a strategic partner like Russia, with whom we share common international obligations and responsibilities. We welcome for example the fact that Russia invited the UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary last month to visit the country, and that more government funds were made available to civil society. But we should also be able to discuss the se t of new laws affecting the work of civil society and the recent crackdown on many organizations. I know that Russian civil society organizations do not accept to bear the derogatory label of ‘foreign agent‘, which they are not. A few organizations are facing trial, like ADC Memorial in St Petersburg, or have already been sentenced, like Golos, and this trend is disturbing. We hope that Russia, bearing in mind international best practice, will address those concerns and that we will be able to discuss this. We will also ask why a case like the one of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in custody more than three years ago, has been closed without anyone being held responsible for his death, while he is actually prosecuted, posthumously.

Q.: The EU has lifted its weapon embargo towards Syrian opposition. The Russian side says it is illegal to supply arms to non-governmental entities and could harm the upcoming conference on Syria in Geneve. Do you agree? Under what circumstances could the EU revise its decision? Is the EU going to monitor supplies in order to guarantee them not to move to extremists?

A.: The main aim of the EU is to get to a negotiated agreement to stop the fighting and bring about a peaceful, inclusive democratic transition in Syria. This is our number one priority, and we are working with all our international partners to achieve this. On 27 May we adopted strong conclusions on Syria that outline the many actions we are taking – such as huge amounts of humanitarian aid to the population and neighboring countries, which are taking in tens of thousands of refugees, and support to the opposition. I look to Geneva II to make political progress, and I am in constant contact with all the parties.
On 27 May we also decided to reintroduce restrictive measures against Syria, not including the arms embargo. Whether or not to export arms to the Syrian opposition will become an issue for each individual member state to decide. Even if they do decide to do so, this must be in line with strict criteria – according to the existing code of conduct for arms trade, only for the Syrian Opposition Coalition and for the protection of civilians and with guarantees about who the end-users will be. All member states also agreed that they would not actually carry out any exports at this stage, but first to assess the progress of the political process. The [European] Council will review the situation by August 1, based on a report I will prepare, after consulting with the UN secretary-general, and taking into account how things have progressed with the U.S.-Russian initiative for a peace conference.

Q.: Russia is proposing that pauses be avoided in the Sextet‘s talks with Iran. When, do you think, could the next full-format talks be held at the level of delegation leaders and political directors? When could international sanctions be softened against Iran?

A.: I am leading negotiations of Russia and the other five countries with Iran. I have just met the Iranian chief negotiator for an informal meeting. I am determined to continue diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. But there are now presidential elections in Iran on 14 June. We have always said that sanctions are not irreversible. It is entirely in Iran‘s hands to engage in meaningful negotiations that would allow building confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.