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Engage or Disengage? EU leaders Divided on Russia 


Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, talks to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, June 24, 2021.

European Union leaders seeking a common stance toward Russia during talks in Brussels on Thursday and Friday are instead divided over a French-German proposal to reset relations with Moscow, including a possible EU-Russia summit.

Arriving in Brussels on Thursday, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas made clear her misgivings about a summit with Moscow anytime soon.

“We all agreed that Russia is a big threat," she said. "They’re more aggressive. I wonder what has happened now, where this proposal comes [from]? And I’m really, really keen to listen their argumentation [about] what has changed since last time. Because Russia only goes as far as we let them.”

The monthly meeting of EU leaders will address a raft of other subjects, but the last-minute proposal by Berlin and Paris on resetting ties with Russia is taking center stage. Moscow says Russian President Vladimir Putin is for it. Ukraine’s foreign minister describes it as “dangerous.” Eastern European countries also are pushing back.

Ivano di Carlo, a Russia analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center, said that "of course, the German-French proposals came as a surprise. So, it might create some divisions within the European Council. … Some central and eastern European countries will consider this a reward for Putin, at a time when there are no positive signals from Russia.”

Sanctions, plus engagement

France and Germany say they want to use the stick of economic sanctions when merited, but also engage with Moscow — following what Brussels describes as a negative spiral in EU-Russia relations. Backdropping their proposal is last week’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin in Geneva — but also this week’s disputed warship confrontation between Russia and former EU member Britain.

French President Emmanuel Macron says dialogue with Russia is necessary to defend European interests and stability. But he insists the EU will not cede anything that threatens the bloc.

European leaders also will discuss Turkey, with reports Brussels will announce several billion dollars in refugee aid and border control for Ankara. Rights groups criticize efforts to deter migrants from coming to Europe. European Policy Center senior analyst Amanda Paul says many in Turkey believe Europe isn’t doing enough.

“It’s a huge burden on Turkey," she said. "Turkey’s economy has suffered terribly because of the COVID pandemic, and having to take care of these millions of refugees is a burden and they’ve been doing it for some years.”

COVID-19 is on the agenda Friday. While cases are dropping and borders are opening in many parts of Europe, France and Germany are calling for more coordination on travel from outside the bloc, to fight the highly contagious delta variant.

Hungary's controversial LGBT legislation and broader migration policies also are discussion items.