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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2006, 18:21 GMT
EU and Russia risk summit fiasco
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

Just as it seemed the EU's relations with Russia could not get any worse, they seem to be heading precisely that way.

A month ago, at an EU summit in the Finnish town Lahti, tempers flared as EU leaders tackled President Vladimir Putin on human rights, corruption, Chechnya and Georgia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Finnish PM Matti Vanhanen
The Lahti summit was not a happy occasion
The Russian leader reportedly struck back with barbed comments about corruption in Italy and Spain - pointing out that "mafia" is not a Russian word.

To make matters worse, the EU leaders only just presented a united front to Mr Putin on energy policy, their chief goal.

A month later and the scene appears set for more of the same at the EU-Russia summit in Helsinki.

The summit was meant to see the launch of negotiations on a new strategic partnership agreement between the EU and Russia.

But Poland - one of the countries which criticised Russia most sharply at Lahti - has vetoed the start of the talks, in a dispute over a Russian embargo on Polish meat and plant products.

If the talks do not start in Helsinki, the summit risks being labelled a farce.

'Friend or foe'

Russia has also raised the stakes by floating the idea of a complete ban on EU meat and feed when Bulgaria and Romania join the bloc on 1 January.

Such stereotypes have little in common with reality, but their persistent influence on political thinking and practice runs the risk of creating fresh divisions in Europe
Vladimir Putin
And President Putin himself issued a veiled warning to Poland and others, in the Financial Times on Wednesday, writing that some European states tried to fit EU-Russia relations into "the obsolete model of friend or foe".

He also accused Estonia and Latvia of failing to respect the rights of the ethnic Russians among their population.

All this might not have mattered so much, if the European Union had not been so dependent on Russian energy - about 30% of its gas comes from Russia.

There are a range of issues it needs to discuss seriously with Russia, now that Moscow has said it will not ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, and the talks on the next EU-Russia partnership and co-operation agreement are the obvious forum.

The issues range from ensuring a fair deal for European companies working in Russia and equal treatment of all EU member states, to encouraging Russia to increase energy efficiency - which could reportedly enable it to save more than half of its current gas production.

Europe also needs reassurance from Russia that it will secure the necessary investment to enable it to meet its future export commitments, so that the flow of oil and gas does not dwindle in the coming decades.

Cartel fear

And there is a new fear - that Russia may be aiming to forge alliances with energy producers in North Africa and Latin America to create a new global cartel rivalling the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

It was only a little over a year ago in Hampton Court that the EU launched its plans for a common energy strategy, so it is perhaps not surprising that there is still some disarray.

On the other hand, 11 months have passed since Russia briefly cut the gas supply to Ukraine, in a dispute over prices, sending a shockwave through the whole of the EU.

Next week, the EU energy commissioner heads for the Kazakh capital Astana to advance the EU's goal of diversifying energy supplies, by finding ways of tapping into Caspian oil and gas.

But this is a sideshow to the real imperative, which is setting the EU's energy relations with Russia on a secure and stable footing now and for the long term.

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