Russia, EU seek to ease food row at summit
EU and Russian leaders Friday sought to take the sting out of a poisonous row over Moscow's ban on EU vegetable imports that has added to an already long list of bilateral disputes.
A chronic lack of progress in talks over a visa-free regime and a new cooperation agreement was already expected to cast a pall over the official talks on the second day of a summit in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.
But after the European Union reacted with fury to Russia's ban on its vegetables in the wake of the E. coli outbreak, this week's biannual negotiations may be especially uncomfortable.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, met inside the historic Nizhny Novgorod fortress overlooking the Volga river.
The leaders, who arrived Thursday and held dinner talks, began their official talks at around 10:00 am (0600 GMT) and were due to hold a joint news conference at 1:20 pm.
Unexpectedly, the head of the Russian consumer watchdog that formally introduced the ban, Gennady Onishchenko, was among the officials at the opening of talks, which were closed to the media.
He said Russia was prepared to scrap the ban after it received guarantees from the European Commission on the safety of specific food products of each EU member state, Russian news agencies reported.
A source in the Russian delegation underlined the awkward atmosphere ahead of the talks, describing the EU reaction as "abnormal" and suggesting its diplomats should publicly eat European cucumbers.
"They in Brussels can start a public procedure of eating all cucumbers without exception, without testing. We'll applaud them," the source said.
But the spokesman for the EU delegation in Russia, Denis Daniilidis, told journalists on the sidelines that at the informal dinner there had been "good will from both sides to resolve this issue on the vegetable ban positively."
Russia, the largest market for EU vegetables, last week imposed a blanket ban on imports to prevent the spread of the E. coli bacteria that has left at least 30 people dead and more than 2,800 sick.
Critics have repeatedly accused Moscow of using import bans on produce as tools to pursue political goals. The ban comes after Russia's repeated calls to scrap the visa regime with the European Union have met with silence.
Progress is also lacking over a new cooperation treaty to replace one in force since 1997.
"The strategic nature of Russia-EU relations calls for a greater trust between us including in the visa field," the Kremlin said in a sharply worded statement released on the eve of the talks.
Adding to the tensions on trade, Russia is also frustrated by its 18-year-long accession process to the World Trade Organisation which has left it as the largest economy to remain outside the body.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered officials to ignore the trade body's rules until the country is admitted and dismissed suggestions that its most recent ban on EU vegetables was against the spirit of WTO membership.
The Russian and EU leaders will also discuss the so-called Partnership for Modernisation programme, an initiative launched last year with an eye to tightening economic cooperation in areas like energy efficiency and support for small and medium-sized businesses.
In a statement released ahead of the talks, Barroso said the summit would "back it (the programme) with 2.0 billion euros ($2.9 billion) of concrete funding."
Several banks from both Russia and EU, including Russia's state development bank VEB as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank, are expected to provide the financing.
EBRD and VEB said earlier this year they would consider committing up to $500 million each to the project.
© 2011 AFP