EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has called for an end to “Russia-bashing”, saying it was time to renew ties with Vladimir Putin’s country, given its size and importance.
“I do think we have to reconnect with Russia,” Juncker told an audience in Brussels. “I am not very happy with the state of our relations. We will never accept what Russia did with Crimea or eastern Ukraine. But nevertheless, we have to have in mind that the entire territory of the European Union is about 5.5m sq km. Russia is 70.5m sq km.
The comments, made during a public debate on EU reform, are likely to cause dismay in some capitals. Juncker has already been repeatedly under fire for saying Europe’s relations with Russia should not be decided by Washington.
In March, Juncker came under attack over a “nauseating” letter congratulating Putin on his re-election even as Britain was blaming Moscow for the deadly toxin attack in London.
In Brussels, Juncker said on Thursday: “So we have to come back to, I wouldn’t say normal relations with Russia, but there are so many areas, so many domains, where we can cooperate in a better way with research and innovation and others. Not forgetting what our differences and divergences are. But this Russia-bashing has to be brought to an end.”
Last week the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said he was determined to hold the Kremlin to account after the Netherlands and Australia formally accused Russia of playing a role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The US administration has also been pressing the EU to apply tougher sanctions on Russia over Kremlin attempts to meddle in western democracies.
Countermeasures applied by the EU against Russia after the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea were resisted by some member states, and have failed to keep up with those of the US. In Italy, the Five Star Movement and the League, the leading populist parties, want to lift the EU’s sanctions on Russia.