German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were keen to initiate talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin but the idea was shot down by the EU. Photo: AFP / Ludovic Marin

A thoughtful, farsighted proposal by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron calling for a resumption of the European Union-Russia summit met sudden death at the EU’s summit in Brussels on Friday. 

A consensus was impossible to reach and the exchanges revealed a strong undercurrent of opposition to any dialogue with Russia at the present juncture.  

Before leaving for Brussels, Merkel had floated the proposal before the German parliament in Berlin on Thursday morning. “It is not enough for the US president to speak to the Russian president. I am very happy about that, but the European Union must also create different formats for discussion,” she said.

Citing wars in Libya and Syria, Merkel added: “We [EU] must define an agenda of common strategic interests, for instance on climate protection, but also in the areas of peace and security.”

Merkel had consulted Macron in advance, who promptly endorsed the proposal as he arrived in Brussels for the EU summit on Thursday evening.

“Dialogue is necessary to stabilize the European continent but it must be firm, as we will not give up any of our values or of our interests,” Macron said.

He added: “We cannot remain on a purely defensive attitude to Russia, on a case-by-case basis, while, very legitimately, we saw a structured discussion unfold between President [Joe] Biden and President [Vladimir] Putin.” 

Conflicts had been mounting over the EU’s relations with Moscow in recent months and feelings were running high in Brussels that foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was cold-shouldered during a visit to Moscow in February. 

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda took a shot at the French-German initiative, saying: “It would be like trying to talk to the bear to save some of the honey.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte remarked acidly that he abhorred the very thought of sitting in the same room with Putin. 

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte doesn’t want to be in the same room as Putin. Photo: AFP / Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency

Independent policy from US

To be sure, Macron and Merkel are far too experienced in dealing with Russia not to know that one summit with Putin will not make a peaceful policy. Rather, their intention is to develop a foreign and military policy toward Russia that is more independent from Washington and thereby strengthen the EU’s hand in the emergent multipolar world order and create space for negotiations with Russia and China. 

Merkel spoke up in the Bundestag from a European perspective that it is not enough to “let ourselves be debriefed about talks with the president of the United States,” but the EU must be “man enough and woman enough to put forward its point of view in direct talks.” 

Strong words, as they come within a couple of weeks of the Group of Seven, NATO and EU-US summits where the fault lines in the trans-Atlantic alliance could be barely papered over. 

Make no mistake, the German and French approach to Russia as such is by no means “softening.” Both are involved in creating NATO’s footprints in the Black Sea.

France joined the massive Sea Breeze naval maneuver in the Black Sea on Monday, which is being hosted by the US and Ukraine and involves 5,000 troops, 32 ships and 40 aircraft from dozens of countries. And for the first time, Germany dispatched two Eurofighters from Tactical Air Wing 71 “Richthofen” to Romania on Thursday, which will patrol Black Sea airspace together with British forces until July 9.  

However, Macron and Merkel kept a “big picture” – the EU’s strategic autonomy – when they mooted the proposal to resume the EU-Russia dialogue. They saw that Biden had invited “killer” Putin to a summit without batting an eyelid because that was precisely what was needed in America’s interests. They feel uneasy that the EU finds itself in a subaltern role. 

Macron reacted sharply when the Franco-German proposal on dialogue with Russia was shot down: “The aberration today is that we’re the toughest power vis-à-vis Russia, despite the fact they’re our neighbor. We saw President Biden meeting President Putin a few weeks ago. I told my friends around the table: He didn’t ask for your opinion. And you see them meeting together and that’s not shocking to you. We’re the odd ones.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting with Russian and French businessmen during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 25, 2018. Photo: AFP / Dmitry Lovetsky

Washington pulling strings?

Macron added: “I have no obsession with a summit with the 27. I’ll be frank, I don’t need an EU summit to see Vladimir Putin. I saw him several times as president and I’ll continue to see him.” 

The known unknown is whether Washington is pulling the strings to kill the Franco-German proposal. In fact, the most vociferous opposition to the proposal came from the countries of Eastern Europe that are known to be Washington’s proxies – especially Poland and the Baltic states. 

Significantly, the German-French initiative for a summit with Putin appeared even as the EU leaders in Brussels were unveiling a joint communication on the EU’s relations with Russia

Borrell visualizes: Under present circumstances, a renewed partnership between the European Union and Russia, allowing for closer cooperation, seems a distant prospect.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tends to agree: “The deliberate choices and aggressive actions of the Russian government over the last years have created a negative spiral.”

To be sure, the US cannot be in a forgiving mood after Merkel’s pushback at Washington over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. On relations with China, too, Merkel seeks a balanced approach of constructive engagement, which Washington finds frustrating. And Merkel has now made relations with Russia another key template of the EU’s strategic autonomy. 

But Merkel is not one to be flustered. After the setback on Friday, the German leader took her campaign to the public domain, telling a press conference: “The president of the US met for a serious talk with Vladimir Putin, which I did not have the impression was a reward for the Russian president. A sovereign EU, in my opinion, should also be able to represent the interests of the EU in such a similar conversation.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a statement on the outcome of the election in the US, November 2020. Photo: AFP via DPA / Michael Kappeler

A divided EU

German opinion favors Merkel’s vision. Her likely successor as chancellor, Armin Laschet, in an interview with the Financial Times last week, also called for Russia to be brought out of the cold, saying the West must try to “establish a sensible relationship” with Moscow. “Ignoring Russia has served neither our nor the US’s interests.”

But the bottom line is that the German-French initiative has caused a divide within the EU, with East European and Baltic countries that are closer geographically to Russia being wary of any loosening of the EU’s approach to Moscow. Equally, the German-French initiative will alarm Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in Russia’s “near abroad.”

Simply put, the Franco-German proposal has upset the countries most worried about Moscow. The specter that is haunting them would be that an EU invitation to Putin at this juncture might soften the bloc’s approach to Moscow, which would inevitably lead to fatigue with Russia sanctions.

This means that the bloc will substantially shelve the Franco-German idea for the time being. Meanwhile, the statement issued after Friday’s summit called on the European Commission and Borrell “to present options for additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions.”

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.