The European Union said Monday it would seek to launch talks with Russia later this year on forging closer political and economic ties, including a possible free trade pact.
The move, to offer Moscow open access to the EU’s market, was seen as an overture by the EU to sway Russia in offering long-term guarantees of secure energy supplies for western Europe.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the EU presidency, said he hoped all 25 EU governments will approve a negotiating mandate on a new EU-Russia accord to replace the existing so-called partnership and cooperation agreement before the end of the year.
“Our aim is that in November when we have this EU-Russia summit, we should make a decision to start the negotiations,” Vanhanen told reporters after talks with the EU’s executive arm, under European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
“We believe from a strategic point of view … we should work toward a free trade area with Russia,” Barroso said. “Russia is a European country and I think it would be in the interest of both parties to have this free trade area. That is what we are asking member states if they are ready to go this way.”
Barroso said the offer of a free trade pact was conditional on Russia joining the World Trade Organization, adding it was too soon to think of a “precise timing” for any free-trade agreement.
Russia’s WTO membership talks have been slowed by disagreement with the United States over rules governing access for foreign financial services companies and Russia’s enforcement of intellectual property rights.
Moscow has been negotiating to join the 149-member global commerce body since 1994.
EU trade spokesman Peter Power said the EU free trade offer was a long-term goal, adding that the EU also still had problems with Russia’s WTO application over its refusal to allow European airlines rights to fly over Siberia.
The Commission said it seeks a “more ambitious” partnership with Moscow, one that touches on closer cooperation in a wide range of issues including human rights, fighting crime and terrorism, immigration and foreign policy.
Key to a new EU-Russia accord is better cooperation in energy.
“It is of great importance that the mutual interest we have in energy cooperation should be expressed in concrete terms in the new agreement,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.
Most EU nations remain heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Russia. A pipeline dispute between Ukraine and Russia last winter caused shortages of energy supplies in many EU nations and led to calls for closer energy ties with Moscow.
Russia and energy are top priorities for Finland, which borders Russia.
Vanhanen has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to a special EU leaders summit in October to discuss energy and forging closer ties.
Officials hope that after those talks, negotiations on a new EU-Russia pact can start in 2007, after EU governments approve the mandate.
The existing partnership and cooperation accord, signed 10 years ago, runs out next year.
It has led to closer practical coordination on travel visas, the environment and in fighting illegal immigration. The pact has been criticized, however, for not doing enough to promote human rights and democratic reforms in Russia.
Hearst Newspapers Partnership, L.P.