When Finland took over the presidency of the European Union in July, one of its priorities was to improve the EU's fractious relationship with Russia. At the time, this ambition seemed both desirable and realistic. The quality of EU-Russia relations had fallen far below expectation, and if anyone was equipped to conduct the requisite diplomacy, it was Finland, with its long experience of engaging its eastern neighbour while also keeping it skilfully at bay.
Regrettably, today's EU summit, which culminates in an informal dinner with President Putin as guest of honour, shows how little progress has so far been made. And the fault is by no means all on Russia's side. Too often at odds on foreign policy generally, the European Union has proved singularly incapable of co-ordinating a joint approach to its largest neighbour.
Among the "old" Europeans, history, electoral considerations and economic interests have all been placed before a coherent Russia policy. The latest EU enlargement only exacerbated the difficulties, as the "new" Europeans brought their own understandable suspicions to the table. The central question, though, has always been the same: how far values such as human rights, free speech and the like should impinge on economic relations.
Russia's economic weakness through the Nineties tipped the relationship in the EU's favour. Now, though, with Russia emerging as a global energy superpower and EU energy requirements continuing to grow, the balance of advantage is more even, if not actually tipped towards Russia. And the fact that Russia has not been able to exploit its new position vis à vis the EU to greater effect is to a large extent its own fault.
From the Yukos affair, which saw Russia's largest oil company forced into bankruptcy and its founder imprisoned on questionable charges of tax evasion, through the brief suspension of gas supplies to Ukraine last winter, up to the latest moves against Western oil companies, Russia has invited doubts about its reliability as an energy partner. And a whole series of recent events - from Russia's blockade of Georgia to the murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the failure of the Russian authorities to register many foreign NGOs before the legal deadline - have only reinforced European doubts about the nature of the Russian state under Vladimir Putin. That Moscow still seems not to appreciate how negatively such episodes affect the perception of Russia abroad only augments existing ill-feeling.
Yet there is - or should be - a relationship of mutual advantage just waiting to emerge. The EU currently receives 25 per cent of its energy from Russia. It would be in the interests of both sides for that proportion to rise. And while some fear that Russia could use its energy as a political weapon, a bigger fear is that Russia might not be able to meet its existing contractual requirements because of its poor infrastructure. The truth is that Russia needs to sell - to buy technology and expertise - just as much as Europe needs to buy.
A hard-headed business exchange need not silence European concerns about human rights and freedoms. Indeed, Russia's need for a market means that it must listen. In return, though, Europe must heed Russia's complaints about double standards. It is no good EU countries, including Britain, preaching deregulation and the free market if these precepts operate with unwritten exclusions. EU-Russian relations must be governed by rules that are clear and do not compromise our standards. But, if both sides are to benefit, those rules must also be fair.Reuse content