EU-Russia relations have been strained since 2014 because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, support to the rebels in East Ukraine, policies in the neighbourhood and internal developments. In 2016, Russia adopted more assertive international positions and tensions worsened over Russian bombing in Syria. The EU has regularly renewed restrictive measures against Russia since 2014. Still, the EU and Russia remain closely interdependent and the EU applies a ‘selective engagement’ approach.

Legal basis

  • Title V of the Treaty on European Union: ‘external action’;
  • Articles 206-207 (trade) and Articles 216-219 (international agreements) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
  • Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (bilateral relations).

Situation in the country

Until the crisis in Ukraine, Russia was considered a ‘strategic partner’ of the EU and the multifaceted nature of the relationship was reflected in many areas of cooperation, including trade, energy and international issues, such as counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and the Middle East peace process. In recent years, the issue of the shared neighbourhood has become a major point of friction between the EU and Russia. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the evidence that Russia supported separatist fighters in the east of Ukraine triggered an international crisis. The EU reviewed its bilateral relationship, cancelling EU-Russia summits, and suspended the visa liberalisation process and talks on a modernised Framework Agreement between the EU and Russia. The EU currently follows a double-track approach on Russia, which combines a policy of gradual sanctions with attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the east of Ukraine.

The 2012 presidential elections — which were not considered to be ‘free and fair’ by Parliament — renewed the mandates of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia. Protests in Russia following the elections highlighted widespread discontent and were indicative of the regime’s loss of legitimacy within politically active segments of Russian society. In response to such protests, Russian legislation, passed from 2012 on, targeted the opposition and civil society with new laws on the registration of non-governmental organisations, demonstrations, internet use, libel and slander, and high treason. This legislation has called Russia’s commitment to democratic values further into question. Moreover, the EU is concerned about the rule of law — including corruption — and about the country’s waning respect for human rights. The parliamentary elections of September 2016 did not change this trend: a dull campaign, a low turnout (47.88%) and a bigger victory for President Putin’s United Russia party.

Russia joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in August 2012, following 18 years of accession negotiations. The country’s investment climate is uncertain, however, and its economic performance remains dependent on oil prices. While the EU is Russia’s first trading partner, and Russia is the EU’s third, trade and economic relations are marred by numerous irritants. The EU considered Russia’s WTO accession to be a positive opportunity, since it offered a multilateral, rules-based framework for trade relations and for resolving disputes.

The EU’s restrictive measures against Russia in respect of actions undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence consist of an asset freeze and a travel ban, now applied to a total of 149 persons and 38 entities. They were first introduced in March 2014 and were last extended on 14 September 2017, until 15 March 2018. On 9 November 2016, the EU added six Crimean members of the Russian Duma (elected that year) to the sanctions list. Furthermore, in late July 2017, the Council prolonged the economic sanctions against Russia until 31 January 2018, targeting the financial, energy and defence sectors, and dual-use goods. In March 2015, the European Council agreed to link the duration of these sanctions to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, which was then intended to take place by 31 December 2015. Finally, restrictive measures in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol were extended on 19 June 2017 until 23 June 2018.

Russia has also been excluded from the G8 and its accession to the OECD and the International Energy Agency has been halted. The regular EU-Russia summits and other high-level meetings have been suspended. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) suspended the Russian delegation’s voting rights in April 2014 in response to the country’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Russia has been retaliating since August 2014 against the sanctions imposed by the EU and by western countries including the US, Canada and Australia, imposing counter-sanctions on agricultural goods, raw materials and food, alleging violations of food security standards. Russia has used the food embargo as an opportunity to reinforce its import substitution policy in the agricultural sector. Russia applies a blacklist to EU and US persons who have expressed criticism of its actions. There is no possible avenue for a legal appeal if a person is listed, contrary to the EU’s travel ban.

The EU and Russia remain closely interdependent in terms of energy, trade, investments, etc. The EU Foreign Affairs Council of 14 March 2016 outlined five guiding principles underlying the EU’s relations with Russia as set out by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: (1) implementation of the Minsk agreement as the key condition for any substantial change in the EU’s stance towards Russia; (2) strengthened relations with the EU’s Eastern Partners and other neighbours, including Central Asia; (3) strengthening the resilience of the EU (for example, energy security, hybrid threats or strategic communication); (4) possibility of selective engagement with Russia on issues of interest to the EU; (5) need to engage in people-to-people contacts and support Russian civil society.

Russia’s cooperation in the efforts of the E3+3 (also called the P5+1) group of countries to reach the nuclear agreement with Iran in July 2015 raised hopes for greater cooperation on the global stage. However, the sudden, strong and direct intervention by Russia, since September 2015, in support of President Bashar Al-Assad, in the Syrian conflict, has caused additional disagreements with the West.

Agreements in force and under negotiation

The legal basis underpinning current EU-Russia relations is the 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). Initially valid for 10 years, the PCA has since been renewed automatically every year. It sets the principal common objectives, establishes the institutional framework for bilateral contacts (including regular consultations on human rights and biannual presidential summits, which are currently frozen) and calls for activities and dialogue in a number of areas.

At the St Petersburg summit in May 2003, the EU and Russia reinforced their cooperation by creating four ‘Common Spaces’, based on common values and shared interests: an economic space; a freedom, security and justice space; an external security space; and a research, education and culture space. A ‘Partnership for Modernisation’ was launched in 2010. In July 2008 negotiations were initiated for a new agreement which was to include ‘substantive, legally binding commitments’ in areas including political dialogue, justice, liberty, security, economic cooperation, research, education, culture, trade, investment and energy.

However, Russia’s intervention in Crimea led to the suspension of all these talks. Russia’s intervention in East Ukraine has also upended efforts to sign an updated visa facilitation agreement, on which negotiations were concluded in 2011. Liberalising visas would require improvements in document security, border management, the effective implementation of the readmission agreement, and Russian reforms in the areas of human rights and the rule of law. In 2014, the European Council decided to freeze cooperation with Russia (with the exception of cross-border cooperation) as well as EU financing for the benefit of the country through international financing institutions.

Role of the European Parliament

According to the Treaty of Lisbon, Parliament must ‘consent’ to any new agreement, as it did to the previous PCA. More specific agreements (such as visa facilitation) also require Parliament’s consent. Though Parliament does not directly define strategic needs or action programmes, it legislates jointly with the Council on the objectives and priorities of EU financial assistance, including the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) through which EU regional cooperation with Russia is financed. Furthermore, Parliament has the right to scrutinise documents guiding the implementation of the ENI before they are adopted, a procedure known as ‘democratic scrutiny’.

a.Positions adopted (resolutions)

Parliament has adopted a series of resolutions on Ukraine which clearly condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s role in destabilising the east of the country. Parliament adopted a report on the state of EU-Russia relations in June 2015.

Before the current crisis, Parliament favoured a new comprehensive agreement with Russia, based on common values and interests. However, in several own-initiative reports, Parliament has also expressed strong concerns about human rights, the rule of law and the state of democracy in Russia. Laws against LGTBQ ‘propaganda’ and against NGOs receiving funding from sources outside Russia are the best examples. Repression against opposition figures, including public threats and the unsolved murders of leaders, is increasing. In April 2017, Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the arrest of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. A strong disinformation campaign is being conducted, both inside and outside Russia. In February and May 2016, Parliament strongly condemned the unprecedented levels of human rights abuses perpetrated against residents of Crimea, most notably Tatars. In March 2017, Parliament asked Russia to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who were either incarcerated or facing conditions of restricted freedom.

b.Cooperation with the Russian Parliament

In the past, Members of the European Parliament and the Russian Parliament met in the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (PCC) every year, including in working groups, to exchange views on current issues. The most recent PCC meeting took place in January 2014. Since then, such activities involving the Russian Parliament have been put on hold.

The European Parliament’s Delegation to the EU-Russia PCC continues to meet regularly to discuss topical issues with representatives from other institutions (such as the Commission and the EEAS) and civil society.

c.Election observation and democracy promotion

Parliament has not been invited by Russia to observe elections since 1999 and has no other related activities in the country.

Fernando Garcés de los Fayos