Markus Ederer: EU and Russia are and will remain very important energy partners
Head of the EU Delegation to Russia Markus Ederer has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about prospects of normalizing relations between EU and Russia, the EU readiness to take part in the post-war reconstruction of Syria, and about how the EU is going to protects its companies working with Iran in the light of new U.S. sanctions.Question: EU member states have recently been discussing the need to abolish or ease the sanctions that were imposed against Russia in 2014 over the events in Ukraine. Is there a unity inside the EU with respect to the automatic prolongation of the sanctions? Do you see prospects for revising or abolishing the sanctions and for the restoration of EU-Russia relations in the foreseeable future?
Answer: I do not like the relations between the EU and Russia to be reduced to sanctions only. The important parts of our relations which are intact are cross-border cooperation, student exchange programs, every program we do in the Baltic region. The EU is Russia‘s biggest trading partner and EU companies are the biggest group of foreign investors here. And Russians are the biggest group of Schengen visa recipients. During the past year, more than 3.8 million visas were issued to Russian citizens - that presents a 20% increase comparing to 2016. Eighty-five percent of them are multi-entry visas. While the EU is undertaking steps to further facilitate the issue of visas in spite of the suspension of the EU-Russia dialogue on visa freedom, on the Russian side, unfortunately, the number of multi-entry visas issued to Europeans is sinking and we see more restrictions.
When it comes to sanctions, I should say first of all that the EU economic sanctions are geared to a particular objective, which is the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and, therefore, they are not means by themselves, they are a tool in the political toolbox. And this is why there is not an automatic renewal, there is no automaticity. Every six months 28 EU Member States get together and check whether there is any progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and based on that assessment they take a decision about the sanctions and it has to be done by consensus.
I know that the Russian narrative is that this is unfair because it is Ukraine that doesn‘t want to implement the Minsk Agreements and why then the sanctions are maintained against Russia. My assessment is that there is a lack of political will to implement these Minsk Agreements, and particularly the last one, from February 2015, on both sides. And there are violations of both the letter and the spirit of the Minsk Agreements on both sides. Let me give you two examples. The most recent example was the shooting down of the long-range drone operated over the area by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The drone registered movements of Russian convoys over the last weeks. As it was later established, it was discovered by an air defense system and was shot down. It‘s a violation of the Minsk Agreements; it runs against the mandate of the Special Monitoring Mission to monitor. And, another one, I would suggest, is what now will happen on November 11, the so-called elections in Luhansk and Donetsk. These steps are backed by Russia. The Minsk Agreements foresee elections only according with the Ukrainian law. Ukraine, as you know, has strongly protested, and if these so-called elections take place, they will be considered a breach of the Minsk Agreements. This position was also confirmed in the statement by Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine Sajdik on November 6. So, before that background, I would, in fact, expect the roll-over of the economic sanctions against Russia by the end of the year.
But looking at the bigger picture – you are asking about the restoration of the EU-Russia relations – this negative development concerning the conflict in Ukraine is compounded by other recent developments, such as an attempted murder with a weapon-grade chemical substance in Salisbury or the cyber-attack against the OPCW in The Hague and, you know, all this does not help the restoration of EU-Russian relations to a normal level.
Q.: Could you please explain the principle underlying the special purpose vehicle for Iran? Will it be launched on November 5? Is the vehicle intended to involve interaction with Russia and China?
A.: The establishment of the special purpose vehicle follows two principles, one is political and one is technical. I will try to explain both. Politically, the EU, as much as Russia and China, by the way, is of the opinion that we should preserve the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement. It has been blessed and implemented by the UN Security Council resolution and we all see critically the withdrawal of the United States. We feel that this is in the vital EU interest to preserve this agreement because we don‘t want to have a nuclear-armed Iran in our neighborhood. And, for that purpose, we also do not want to have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This is why we believe we should do everything to preserve this agreement and this is why we believe that we should also preserve the economic benefit to Iran, which was promised in this agreement. So, the EU has taken a number of measures, including the work on the special purpose vehicle, which was again welcomed in the statement made on the margins of the UN General Assembly. And it is designed to maintain and develop payment channels for Iran‘s exports, including its oil exports, and Iranian imports, so that European business operators can continue doing legitimate business with Iran. And I can refer to a statement by Madame Mogherini following the meeting of the stakeholders of the JCPOA, in which she said that this special purpose vehicle could also be opened to other countries. So, I think that the technical discussions are going on, and I think it will be introduced in the very near future. Not least, relating to new U.S. sanctions that will be coming on November 5.
Q.: How important for Europe is energy supply from Russia? Do Europeans intend to preserve their strategic partnership with Moscow on this track? Do European companies working in Russia elaborate special mechanisms to protect themselves from the possible new sanctions that might be introduced by U.S. against Russia‘s banking and energy sectors?
A.: First of all, the EU and Russia are and will remain very important energy partners. For the last year, the EU was receiving 37% of its gas imports from Russia, that‘s as much as the imports from Norway. And it was receiving 30% of its oil imports from Russia. Over the last years, both Russia and the EU have invested in the diversification of their suppliers or their buyers, in case of Russia, of transport routes and also of sources. If you look at Russia, it is now also developing its LNG sector, it‘s diversifying towards the East, more exports to Asia, whereas also in the EU we have established almost 30 LNG terminals in the Member States and we are also expecting gas imports trough the Southern gas pipeline from the Caspian region by 2020. So, this is what the name of the game is, diversification. But you know, these long-time energy relationships don‘t change overnight, and I think for quite some time we will be tied together between Russia and the EU through interdependence.
I will not speculate on the sanctions by the United States. We will have to cross that bridge if we come to it.
Q.: Russia calls its European partners to participate in the restauration of Syria’s infrastructure and promote the return of refugees to this country without any preconditions, do EU member states agree with this offer?
A.: I don‘t think we can say that the war in Syria is really over. And we can say that the country is not at peace yet - just look, for example, at Idlib. And so I have a question: who in their right mind will try to attract refugees back to a war-zone or to a post-war-zone without defining any preconditions? This is why the EU sticks very much to the criteria the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has developed for these cases and they speak about a voluntary, a save and a dignified return for refugees.
Looking at the Russian position that you described, I would like to refer you to the communique from Istanbul last week, where the four powers - France, Russia, Germany, Turkey - have not called for the immediate return. I think they were very close to the position the EU holds, and I quote, because they "highlighted the need to create conditions throughout the country for the save and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original places of residence in Syria underlining that the returnees need security from armed conflict, political persecution, arbitrary arrests, as well as humanitarian infrastructure”.
When it comes to the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure, one might get an impression from certain statements that it is the EU‘s sole responsibility to reconstruct the infrastructure that was destroyed by a war in which the EU didn‘t participate. The EU will not follow this simplistic logic. When the day of reconstruction comes, this will be the responsibility of all major global powers. In this context, the EU will be ready to engage in the restoration of the infrastructure, but only when there is a comprehensive, genuine and politically inclusive transition which is firmly under way in Syria based on the participation of all Syrian groups and based on the [UN] Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva communique. Again coming back to Istanbul, a very important step here would be the creation of the Constitutional Committee – the four powers have called now to finally constitute this Constitutional Committee. But we have been trying this for almost a year and who blocks it is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Before these conditions are not in place, I think it will be difficult to attract the EU and its Member States to the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure.
Q.: But what do you mean by the political transition? Do you mean that until President al-Assad is in power, the EU will not be engaged in the restoration of the infrastructure in Syria?
A.: As I have just said, there should be a comprehensive, genuine, inclusive political transition firmly under way based on the participation of all Syrian groups and based on the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva communique.
Q.: On October 15, the EU Foreign Affairs Council approved a new system for applying restrictive measures to counter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. Does the EU plan to take any measures with respect to Russia, such as introducing new sanctions over the recent events in Salisbury or Russian military intelligence activities and cyber-attacks in the Netherlands?
A.: In the EU, you cannot simply impose sanctions without a legal basis. This instrument will provide a legal basis for imposing sanctions for the development and use of chemical weapons either against entities or individuals independently of their nationality and location.
There have been various incidents recently – you mentioned one but I would also draw your attention to chemical attacks in Syria or an attack with a chemical-weapon-grade substance against a North Korea citizen in Malaysia. All these incidents would be covered by this legal basis. The way it works is that either an EU Member State or the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy will have to make a listing proposal, and this listing proposal will have to be agreed by unanimity in the Council. To the date, there have been no such designations.