Question: Are you satisfied with the work done toward the December summit between Russia and the EU?
Alexander Grushko: Since the June summit between Russia and the EU in Nizhny Novgorod, serious progress has been achieved on a number of priorities for our relations, laying significant groundwork for the future. So the positive trend continues even despite the wave of economic and financial difficulties sweeping Europe as well as the EU’s understandable focus on domestic issues.
Firstly, a lot of work has been done in the economic and trade sector of cooperation with the EU. The 18-year saga of Russia’s accession to the WTO is drawing to an end. We hope that this step will launch a positive “chain reaction” in our relations with the European Union. First of all, we are interested in giving impetus to the process of formulating a new framework agreement that has slowed down, which aims to create a qualitatively new basis of cooperation between Russia and the EU for the foreseeable future.
Of course, we expect that in the long term Russia’s WTO membership will accelerate the development of trade and economic ties, mutual investment flows, and in general, the improvement of the environment for business.
An important catalytic role in our relations is played by the initiative "Partnership for Modernization." Its implementation helps to bring our economies closer and improve their competitiveness on the basis of scientific, technological and innovative development. I should add that so far the modernization programs of action have been signed with 19 European countries.
By the way, speaking about the concrete economic projects that are crucial for Russia and the EU, I will specifically note the launching of the first line of the North European Gas Pipeline on November 8 this year with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance. The realization of this and other strategic projects - I mean primarily the South Stream - will significantly enhance the energy security across Europe.
Secondly, we have advanced considerably in the liberalization of the bilateral visa regime with a view to its complete abolition.
Thirdly, foreign policy and security cooperation is attaining new levels of quality. Here are but a few examples. Russian and EU naval sailors resist sea pirates off the coast of Somalia shoulder-to-shoulder. Air groups of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, in coordination with the relevant EU bodies, work together to fight fires in European countries. We cooperate in efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Europe and elsewhere, although, of course, on a whole range of issues Russia and the EU still have differences. We are studying the possibility of fostering military-technical cooperation and military-to-military contacts.
On November 17, 2011 a meeting of the Russia-EU Permanent Partnership Council took place at the level of heads of foreign affairs agencies. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, undertook a review of all aspects of our multifaceted cooperation, and compared notes on key issues on the international agenda. It is important that for each of the four common spaces that make up the foundation of cooperation a set of specific steps was identified aiming to strengthen the partnership between Russia and the EU.
Question: Will the upcoming summit limit itself exclusively to the work on the roadmap that is expected to prescribe timeframes for introducing a visa-free regime between Russia and the EU?
Alexander Grushko: Of course, it will not limit itself to that. The summit is going to discuss key aspects of Russia-EU relations as well as global issues and regional themes. But you are right that the visa issues that affect directly the interests of millions of people are a priority. At present, almost completed is the process of developing a list of common steps on the principle of equality which both Russia and the European Union must implement in order to create the conditions for transition to a visa-free regime for short-term mutual trips of citizens. Right now, the document undergoes its final fine-tuning, and we hope that the summit will give the green light for its implementation.
Obviously, the transition to a visa-free regime is a political question. Russia has already stated that it is ready for its introduction. I am sure that the EU countries also have the political will to do so. After all, by and large, freedom of movement for citizens is the embodiment of the strategic partnership. However, one should not underestimate the “weight” of the complex technical challenges that must be addressed for the visa-free regime to work effectively. Law-abiding citizens should not experience any difficulties when crossing borders. While visiting, they should feel comfortable and protected in legal terms. But the border must be impervious to organized crime, trade in humans and drug trafficking. So a large amount of joint work still lies ahead. We hope that cooperation in accomplishing these steps will become yet another tool for rapprochement between Russia and the EU.
But the visa issues on the Russia-EU agenda are not limited to the Common Steps alone. Negotiations on amending the existing Russia-EU Agreement on simplification of visa procedures are reaching the finish straight to encourage the parties to issue multiple-entry visas and to expand the “privileged” categories of citizens. The European Parliament is in the process of approval of the draft Russian-Polish agreement on local border traffic, which will greatly facilitate mutual visits by residents of the Kaliningrad Region and the neighboring provinces of Poland.
Question: Can I say today that Russia and the EU have become strategic partners for each other?
Alexander Grushko: Relations between Russia and the EU are so versatile, they have so much progress and yet a lot of problems, it is unlikely that such formulas will be accurate. I think it would be correct to say that a large part of the road has been traveled towards a full-fledged strategic partnership which must be embodied in the four common spaces. The potential for convergence is not yet exhausted and not fully realized – for example, in the energy sector, where the EU’s “third energy package” is becoming a serious impediment to the implementation of joint strategic projects. Therefore we must move on.
This also applies to our arsenal of political cooperation, which contains significant growth potential. In view of the dynamic development of the international situation, both sides are interested in transforming their intensive political dialogue into more effective mechanisms to respond quickly to emerging crises and jointly make decisions and implement them.