Germany and France have called for a new EU strategy of closer engagement with Russia to build on discussions with Moscow in the wake of US president Joe Biden’s Geneva summit with Vladimir Putin.
Diplomats said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, wanted the EU to consider inviting the Russian president to a summit with EU leaders, and that the initiative was supported by French president Emmanuel Macron.
Ambassadors representing Berlin and Paris wrongfooted other EU capitals at a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday by making the new proposals on the relationship with the Kremlin, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
However, Merkel has been in close consultation with European allies in the past few days, with Macron and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi both visiting Berlin for talks. US secretary of state Antony Blinken has also been in the city for discussions with the government this week.
However much we argue, we must keep the channels of communication open, so as to be able to clearly express our positions and interests
Initial discussions between EU and Kremlin officials regarding the various proposals have already taken place, including the feasibility of a summit involving Putin. The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment from the FT on the proposals.
Germany is of the view that the Biden-Putin summit provides a template for reviving relations with Russia. Merkel meets Putin regularly, and spoke with him earlier this week by telephone, but advocates finding a format that allows the EU to speak with one voice on Russia.
“However much we argue, we must keep the channels of communication open, so as to be able to clearly express our positions and interests and then look to see if any solutions can be found,” Merkel said before meeting Blinken on Wednesday.
One senior French official said: “It’s about effectiveness, not about a particular format for meetings,” adding that Macron supported the German move and was involved in the plan to have a dialogue with Russia in co-ordination with other EU members while maintaining the EU’s demands on various issues.
“It makes sense to think about the added value of high-level discussions — which is exactly what the US did in holding the [Biden-Putin] summit in Geneva,” the official said.
A spokeswoman for the German government, asked whether Germany and France would push for an EU summit with Putin, said: “It is common practice for Germany and France to co-ordinate closely before EU summits and draw up proposals.” But she said she could not comment on the “content of internal decision-making processes”.
EU summits with Putin have been suspended since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
The proposed new outreach to Moscow is likely to alarm some EU member countries, such as the Baltic states and Poland, which neighbour Russia and want to take a tougher line with the Kremlin.
The Franco-German initiative came shortly after Moscow said it had fired warning shots including bombs at a British warship in the Black Sea near Crimea. The UK denied that any shots had been fired and said it believed the “Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise”.
EU leaders touched on the future of Russia relations at their May summit and charged the European Commission with coming up with proposals on how to proceed. But the Franco-German draft text is far more conciliatory than last week’s commission analysis which warned of a “negative spiral” in EU-Russian relations and the need to counter “malign actions”.
The wording proposed to fellow member states, which if adopted would form part of summit conclusions later this week, reiterated the EU’s willingness for “a selective engagement” with Russia on areas of common interest.
It encourages the commission and the EU’s diplomatic service to develop “concrete proposals and leverages” to this end. Topics would include climate, the environment, the Arctic, cross-border co-operation, health, space, the fight against terrorism and foreign policy areas including Syria and Iran.
“In this regard, the European Council calls for a review of the existing format of dialogue with Russia, including meetings at leaders’ level,” the proposed draft says.
The text also stresses the need for the EU to respond in a co-ordinated way to “malign activities” from Russia, calling on Brussels to draw up options for possible economic sanctions.
The proposal comes a day after Merkel spoke with Putin in a call to mark 80 years since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
During the call, according to the Kremlin, “it was pointed out that overcoming mutual hostility and achieving reconciliation between the Russian and German people was of crucial significance for the postwar future of Europe, and that ensuring security on our common continent now is only possible through joint efforts”.
“The parties agreed on further personal contacts,” the Kremlin added.
One senior EU diplomat said the Franco-German initiative had caused a “stink” among fellow EU countries, who voiced their frustration at the last-minute intervention on the eve of the summit. “This is not a way things should be handled,” said the diplomat.
Another member state official described the intervention as “not very helpful” and a third said they were “still analysing” the surprise move. An EU official said the bloc would “reflect” on how to find a way forward ahead of the summit, which begins on Thursday afternoon.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin
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