Threat of trade war after Putin suspends EU meat imports

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The EU's relations with Russia took a dramatic turn for the worse yesterday as Brussels hinted it may retaliate with trade sanctions after Moscow suspended imports of meat from Europe.

The EU's relations with Russia took a dramatic turn for the worse yesterday as Brussels hinted it may retaliate with trade sanctions after Moscow suspended imports of meat from Europe.

The Russian decision, which could disrupt trade worth more than €1.3bn per year, was seen in Brussels as a political rebuff, coming just two weeks after the EU pledged its support for Russia's attempt to join the World Trade Organisation.

On Tuesday Russia began blocking imports of beef, pork and insisting that the 25 EU countries use a uniform veterinary certificate issued by the European Commission. Under current regulations each member state issues its own documentation, to common European standards, with Russian inspectors allowed to pay visits to monitor procedures.

At least 11 EU countries, including Poland, Spain, Germany, France and Ireland, have reported problems, and the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, made a personal protest yesterday to the Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

Mr Prodi's chief spokesman Reijo Kemppinen, said that the Russian action "is not behaviour one would expect from a potential WTO member," adding: "We don't see any scientific or substantial basis for these measures, which implies that the reasons lie elsewhere."

Asked whether the EU was considering retaliation, Mr Kemppinen said it would confine its response "for today" to political pressure.

The row follows months of tense negotiation over the terms of trade between Russia and the 10 countries which joined the EU on May. Moscow at first refused to extend the normal measures it applies to European countries to the new nations, which include three Baltic republics which were once part of the Soviet Union.

However, Moscow ultimately relented, signing an agreement just before the EU-Russia summit last month. The current dispute is a separate one which potentially involves all 25 EU member states and has been described by the Russian authorities as a technical problem.

Russian officials argued that they had given notice of the impending ban, which was originally scheduled to come into effect on 1 May. However, EU diplomats were also optimistic that the row could be resolved. "The Russians simply cannot afford a full-scale trade war with the EU," said one diplomat yesterday.

Several interpretations were offered for Moscow's actions, including the suggestion that Russia was using the ban to get more funding from Europe to train vets and buy equipment. Some diplomats have also suggested that the move is designed to permit a temporary boost in domestic consumption of Russian meat products.

Nevertheless, relations with Russia have been more tense than either side has admitted publicly. Russian officials were disappointed with progress at the EU-Russia summit in Moscow, which made smaller strides on forging new areas of co-operation than anticipated.

The EU had hoped for a clearer Russian commitment to sign the Kyoto protocol, designed to cut global warming, though private assurances have been given by Moscow that it will do so eventually.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has made it clear that he will not attend a summit of Nato leaders in Istanbul later this month.

Though there was no formal invitation to take part, Mr Putin was sounded out through diplomatic channels and declined to participate. Russia remains highly sensitive about the recent enlargement of Nato - its cold war enemy - to include the Baltic states, and Mr Putin's decision is intended to portray a defiant stance for the benefit of domestic public opinion.

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