Russia, EU seek to heal trade rift at summit

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European Union and Russian leaders meet Thursday for a summit seeking to heal the rift opened by a damaging clash over Moscow's decision to ban EU vegetable imports.

Russia, the largest market for EU vegetables, last week imposed a complete ban on imports to prevent the spread of the E. coli bacteria that have so far killed more than 20 people, mainly in Germany.

The European Union reacted angrily to the measure -- the most stringent in any European country -- calling for Russia to immediately lift the ban, which it said was disproportionate and lacking a firm scientific basis.

Russia has regularly slapped import bans on produce in moves widely criticised as overly political and Moscow has already hinted this ban could be lifted before the summit in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.

The two-day summit brings together President Dmitry Medvedev with EU leaders -- among them commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and EU president Herman Van Rompuy. Previous meetings have been marred by disputes on issues ranging from energy to human rights.

Russia's envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said he expected the latest dispute to be "clarified" ahead of the summit, saying he hoped leaders "would have more interesting topics to discuss than a bacillus."

Russian officials have said they need full information from the EU on the origin of the illness before lifting the ban and that so far these details have not been forthcoming.

Moscow would be keen to rescind the ban after realising it went too far, an EU official added.

"They have realised the ban was a mistake. Russia was the only country except for Lebanon to impose a blanket ban on European vegetables. It does not make sense," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The unilateral ban could be a setback to Russia's long-vaunted intentions to join the World Trade Organisation, the head of the EU delegation to Russia warned last week, saying Moscow was going "in the opposite direction."

At the summit, EU leaders will urge Medvedev to "make the final necessary push" to join the global trade body, the EU official said, with rules on food imports still a sticking point.

The E. coli flare-up is the latest in a series of rows between Russia and the European Union, which regularly cross swords over gas pipe shutoffs and human rights issues such as the trials of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The European Union will discuss offering Russia several billion euros in loans for economic development in exchange for reforms, including in the area of human rights, the EU official said.

It will also voice "its serious soul-searching" over Khodorkovsky's latest trial and the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for a Western investment fund who died at 37 from untreated illnesses while awaiting trial.

Russia and the EU will use the latest summit to continue thrashing out a new partnership agreement, formally defining their cooperation in trade, investment and energy, to succeed one in force since 1997.

The two sides will discuss gas pipeline projects, with Russia pushing its South Stream plan to pump Russian gas under the Black Sea, while the EU will prioritise the rival Nabucco, bypassing Russia, an EU official said.

"With South Stream, from the European point of view, we are dependent on Russian gas supplies while this is not the case with Nabucco."

The turmoil in the Middle East, where Russia is keen to make its mark as a mediator, will lead the international agenda, diplomats said.

Fernando Valenzuela, the head of the EU delegation to Russia, said last week the summit would discuss "developments in North Africa, the situation in Libya, of course the Middle East peace process."

© 2011 AFP

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