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EU Ambassador to Russia: New chances for dialogue should be used wisely

© Mikhail Japaridze/TASS
Markus Ederer believes that in international politics, stakeholders should no operate within the winner- loser paradigm

The head of the EU diplomatic mission in Moscow, Markus Ederer, in an interview with TASS talks about the opportunities for dialogue with Russia, the developments in Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan, as well as Iran.

- Ursula von der Leyen will be the new head of the European Commission. What does this fact mean for the EU, for EU-Russia relations?

- First of all, I think her election in the European Parliament was a good day for Europe. I’d like to remind you that this was a comparatively fast process for determining the European leadership after the elections. As you remember it took much more time 5 years ago. So, now the future EU top leadership is complete. It needs to be noted that Madame von der Leyen is the first woman at the helm of the European Commission. We will also see more women commissioners, she has announced that. And I believe that, when it comes to foreign and security policy, of course, it’s very much in the hands of the designated High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Mr Borrell and the EU Member States. Of course, the Commission President has an important role to play.

I would refer you to her "Political guidelines for the next European Commission 2019-2024" where the future European Commission President has highlighted some landmark objectives such as, inter alia, protecting our European way of life, a stronger Europe in the world and further bold steps in the next 5 years towards a genuine European Defense Union. The future European Commission President's recent interviews should be read in the perspective of these and her other headline goals.

We will know more once the European Commission is aggregated as a whole by November 1 and takes up its work.

- Not too long ago, you said that the changes in Ukraine and the appointment of new leaders of European institutions open now opportunities for a meeting between the EU and Russia. When can we expect the meeting, and at what level such a meeting could take place?

- I remember that event, but I need to insist that I be quoted correctly. So let me repeat what I said then. I said, first of all, that we note in 2019 the absence of the type of incidents which we have seen in 2018 (Salisbury, the Kerch incident and so on), which already points to some improvement of the situation. Secondly, I said that we saw a positive development with the return of Russian deputies to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. And we would expect to make progress also on 2 other important issues which affect the EU-Russia relationship. One is progress on and the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. And the other one is the success of the trilateral gas talks between Russia, Ukraine and the European Commission on future gas transit through Ukraine post-2019. I have, with regard to Russia-Ukraine relations welcomed the progress on military disengagement in Stanytsia Luhanska. In the interim, we have witnessed a first phone call between the Russian and the Ukrainian Presidents, which is also a positive development.

And we can only hope that the new chances provided by the new Ukrainian President, making positive steps towards the implementation of the Minsk agreements would be used wisely by all sides to make progress on this important issue. "Wisely" implies a positive attitude rather than complicating matters further, such as what we saw immediately after President Zelensky’s election with Russia’s announcement to facilitate the issuing of Russian passports to Donbass residents.

My take is: if this year we see a continuous absence of such incidents as described and if we see progress in the areas which I have mentioned, then it seems to me that possibly towards the end of the year or the beginning of the next year, we could witness the opening of a window of opportunity in EU-Russia relations. That window would need to be used by both sides, and I think it will provide for a new chance to soberly assess the EU-Russia relationship, where differences remain, where common interests prevail, how to stabilize and possibly even move the relationship forward.

By that time we will have not only a new Ukrainian leadership in place, also after the elections to the Verkhovna Rada; we will also, as of November 1, have a new EU leadership in place. To answer your question, I think only then we can talk about eventual meetings, as none of these EU leaders have taken their office while we speak. And those meetings, if at all, would then be also a result of using the opportunities I have mentioned.

- It is possible that the new head of the European diplomacy, Mister Borrell, will visit Russia this year or at the beginning of the next year?

- Well, as I said, too early to call. The political situation must lend itself for such a development and new EU leaders have to first take up their functions in November.

- I want to ask you about INSTEX. This mechanism was designed to protect trade exchanges with Iran from US sanctions. But ultimately it is used to ensure deliveries of foodstuff and medicines which are sanction-free in any case. Why to complicate things? When should we expect deliveries to Iran or purchases from Iran of all sanctioned goods including oil? What should third countries do to become part of this mechanism?

- When we talk about INSTEX, we should start with the current political development surrounding the JCPOA. On the 8th of July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (for the first time since the entry into force of the JCPOA) confirmed that Iran is enriching uranium beyond the 3.67% threshold which has been fixed in the JCPOA. The EU is very concerned about this development and has called on Iran to avoid any further steps which could undermine the JCPOA. And, as you know, the EU, as a coordinator of the group which has negotiated the JCPOA, is therefore also in touch with China and Russia. The last Joint Commission of the JCPOA was held at the end of June this year.

INSTEX was created exactly to implement the JCPOA after the United States left the agreement. And it is there to enable legitimate trade between Iran and the international community. The 3 founding countries have announced, and I think it is part of the statement which they issued in January this year, that in an initial phase this instrument would be used for legitimate trade in medicines, medical devices and agri-food goods. After the last meeting of the EU 28 foreign ministers on the 15th of July, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini made a statement to the effect that trading of other goods including oil is now under discussion among stakeholders.

In terms of participation of third countries in INSTEX, there is no new development. It was said and it was clear from the beginning that third countries would have access to INSTEX. And I think that Germany, France and the UK have also made it clear that this would be possible after the initial phase when INSTEX would be used by EU Member States. As you will see from High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Mogherini’s statement, she was also talking about difficult due diligence questions which first need to be addressed.

For the EU it is very important to keep the JCPOA in place, it is for us an important cornerstone of the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime. We are extremely interested, and it is a core interest for the European Union, not to allow a nuclear arms race in its neighborhood. So, the EU will do everything within its powers together with China and Russia, to keep the JCPOA alive.

- As you said, JCPOA is very important for everything in the world and Europe too. Will the European Union call for new meetings on JCPOA? And are there any chances to get the United States to this meeting?

- Well, I understand that coordination efforts on a new meeting of the Joint Commission are under way. I think it’s too early to say when it can take place.

- Mister Zarif said that there could be no better deal than JCPOA. Do you agree with him?

- Well, the JCPOA, at the time when it was negotiated and still today was the best agreement available to limit Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons. And I think this is the conviction not only of Iran but of those countries which since then adhere to the JCPOA. To quote the Foreign Minister of France, Mr. Le Drian, after Iran’s breaching of the cap on its uranium enrichment: he called recent Iran's non-compliance a bad reaction to a bad decision (of the United States), and I think that is a good description of the situation.

- I want to ask you about a case where Russia and the EU, I think, found a good solution to a political crisis in Moldova. How did the EU manage to find common ground with Russia in this case?

- Moldova itself found a solution to a protracted political crisis. It is a sovereign country and it is in charge of its own political processes. And you’re right, the formation process for the coalition had been delayed, but I think the outcome is absolutely acceptable and to be welcomed in terms of democratic process and the legitimacy of the new government. The EU had said from the outset that it would work with a democratically legitimized government. The European Council on the 20th of June welcomed the peaceful transition of power. And it was EU Commissioner Hahn who was the first foreign politician to visit the country after the new government was in place.

So, from our point of view, we welcome Madame Sandu’s government having pledged to pursue necessary reforms. The EU will continue to support Moldova as long as the country follows the reform path and meets democratic and rule of law standards. We want to bring tangible improvements to the lives of Moldovan citizens.

- In its strategy for the Central Asia, the EU underlines that it has no intentions to act in accordance with the principal “partnership either with us or with Russia”. For example, the EU has been Kazakstan’s largest trade partner since 2002.

Do you really believe that this won’t raise any Russia’s concerns? If needed, will the EU be ready to hold trilateral consultations on the trade area with Russia and Kazakhstan? You know, as Russia proposed in case of Ukraine in 2013.

- Well, I think in international politics stakeholders should be free from any zero sum thinking. And therefore the EU approach, not only in the case of the Central Asia strategy would never go for an “us or them” approach. The EU would always try to look at win-win solutions which conform to the interests of all sides. This is not only proved by this second edition of the EU Central Asia strategy but also by its first edition launched in 2007. You remark on possible concerns that the EU is Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner. Let me say that the EU is also Russia’s biggest trading partner. Has Kazakhstan or any other country ever voiced concerns about that fact? No, and why would they? Therefore I believe that nobody should be too worried about other countries’ trade balance with the EU.

Generally speaking, Kazakhstan, as I said before for Moldova, is a sovereign country. It doesn’t need advice on its trade balance from either of its neighbors or the EU for that purpose. And no country should count other countries into its own "sphere of influence". Nor should any country or organization ever aspire to make decisions over the head of other countries on their status.

So, I think the question you pose is missing the point. Let me also stress that the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that we have with Kazakhstan since 2015 is not a free trade agreement, not a preferential agreement. Kazakhstan’s status in the Eurasian Economic Union is not affected. I think your comparison with Ukraine is not warranted.

- What is the EU position on situation with Schengen visas for the citizens of Crimea?-

As it is publically known, the EU has never recognized and will not recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. And therefore Russian passports issued in Crimea by Russian authorities after the annexation shall not be recognized and shall not be accepted for applications for Schengen visa.

There are two ways for the Crimean residents to obtain a Schengen visa. One is for Crimean residents with travel documents issued there by the Russian authorities before the illegal annexation. And the second option for Crimean residents is the following: many of them still hold Ukrainian passports or have a right to Ukrainian passports as Ukraine still considers Crimea residents as Ukrainian citizens.  They can continue to use these non-biometric Ukrainian passports. In both cases, their application for a Schengen visa must be presented to EU Member States consulates in Ukraine, not in Russia.  

By the way, if they hold a Ukrainian biometric passport, they travel visa-free to the Schengen area, because there is visa freedom for Ukrainians with biometric Ukrainian passports. That visa freedom has existed since 2017.

So, in short, had Russia not annexed Crimea in 2014, Crimean residents would all enjoy a basis right to travel visa-free to the Schengen area, as all Ukrainians have that right.

- And one more question — the INF Treaty. European officials said that the ball is on the Russian side. Why only on the Russian side, not on the American side?

- From the EU’s point of view the INF Treaty has made a significant contribution to European security and broader international security over the past 30 years. We have expressed our deep concern about the developments surrounding the INF Treaty which could now end on August 2.

We have at the same time called on the Russian Federation to effectively address the serious concerns repeatedly expressed about the development, flight testing and deployment of its ground based missile system 9M729, and the serious concerns this has raised about non-compliance with the INF Treaty. And we believe that, in that regard, substantial and transparent actions must be taken immediately to ensure full and verifiable compliance with the INF Treaty provisions.

So, we have a few days left for Russia to come back to the treaty taking necessary measures to preserve this important component of European security architecture. In the context of this negative development and our commitment to verifiable and effective treaty based nuclear arms control and disarmament we would welcome an early and active dialogue on the future of the New Start post 2021, and other arms control agreements.