European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has agreed to attend an event in Russia in June, a Commission spokeswoman announced on May 30, in a move that may stir debate on the EU's fraught relations with Moscow. «President Juncker has been invited and plans to participate in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 16 June», the spokeswoman stated. «He will use this opportunity to convey to the Russian leadership as well as to a wider audience the EU's perspective regarding the current state of EU-Russia relations», she added.
The annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum will be held on June 16-18. This year’s topic is «Capitalizing on the New Global Economic Reality». The annual event brings together politicians, business leaders and think tankers. This time Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, Greece’s Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine and Europe’s former Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson are on the guest list. Major US investors will take part in the forum.
«Business will do what it sees as necessary. What is not forbidden is allowed. According to our information, the leading investors will attend the Russian forum. American companies will be among them. The policy of ignoring the forum has failed. Interested companies, in any case, will attend and no one will hinder them», said Russian Embassy in Washington spokesman Grigory Zasypkin.
Last year, SPIEF was attended by PwC, Boston Consulting, Schlumberger, Intel, ExxonMobil, Boeing and other American companies. In 2015, the forum saw 205 agreements, memorandums and contracts signed, with a total worth of $4.5 billion.
European Council President Donald Tusk has recently underlined the bloc’s current inclination to prolong the sanctions against Moscow, despite a call from some European policymakers and business leaders to review the policy.
Several countries – including the UK and the US as well as some Baltic and Central European nations – have privately expressed unease that Juncker’s participation in the event would bolster the Russian position at a decisive moment of the sanctions debate.
Those who oppose the anti-Russian sanctions point out that they have proven politically ineffective and economically harmful for both Russia and European countries.
For instance, France’s Senate will debate a draft resolution calling for the easing and gradual lifting of anti-Russia sanctions on June 8. The authors of the resolution also stressed that the policy of sanctions is no longer viable. The French Senators called for the immediate lifting of personal sanctions imposed against Russian MPs and stressed that Moscow remains a strategic partner both for France and Europe. The draft resolution has already been supported by the body’s Committee on European Affairs. «Deteriorating relations between Russia and the EU are only causing regret. We believe that gradual easing of sanctions imposed against Russia is necessary, particularly in the field of economy», said Yves Pozzo di Borgo and Simon Sutour, the two senators who introduced the draft resolution.
On April 28, a similar resolution was passed by the French Assembly, which is the lower house of the French Parliament.
On May 19, a council in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region has adopted a resolution recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and urging the Italian government and the EU to lift sanctions.
On May 25, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that Budapest is set to stand against the automatic extension of sanctions imposed on Moscow by the European Union, after he met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Hungary’s capital
«We are aware that resistance in the EU to extending the sanctions towards Russia has increased», said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
«It will be more difficult than it was last year to find a common position on this issue», the Minister stated. «I hope that by the end of June there will be progress and then we can see if we can reduce the sanctions step by step, or if we stay with the measures we have right now», Steinmeier told German weekly Der Spiegel in an interview on May 20. «It is not our aim to maintain the sanctions but to resolve the conflict», he pointed out.
According to the latest estimates by the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (AHK), two-thirds of the 134 German companies working in Russia said they have suffered from the sanctions.
Unnamed diplomatic sources told American magazine Politico, the US fear Juncker’s visit would strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position before a crucial decision on renewing the restrictive measures.
When Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, raised the possibility of going to Moscow in March, diplomats said that EU foreign ministers were sharply divided over whether to give her the mandate to make the trip.
Mogherini eventually decided not to go. She may try again soon if Juncker’s visit takes place.
Despite the sanctions, EU officials have worked closely with Russia on issues such as Syria and Iran.
Since the sanctions came into force, Russia’s international contacts have been very intense. US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian leader in March to talk about Syria, and diplomatic relations between the EU member states and Russia continue. Between September 2015 and February 2016, there were 19 visits by national delegations to Moscow, mainly at the ministerial level. Germany’s Angela Merkel visited Moscow in May 2015. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met Russian President Vladimir Putin in April this year.
EU member states recognize that the sanctions in question are a divisive issue. The upcoming visit of Jean-Claude Juncker shows that the existing unity is fragile. Russia’s economy is on the way to full recovery and European companies will miss out on taking advantage.
Russia can buy most goods produced in the EU from elsewhere. There is a growing realization in Europe that sanctions have failed and reality dictates different approaches. The decision of the President of the European Commission to visit Russia before the EU summit (June 28-29) proves this fact. No doubt his presence at the forum will be a major breakthrough in the Russia-EU relationship.