European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed that he has accepted the invitation to attend an event in Russia on 16 June, in a move that may stir debate on the EU’s tense relations with Moscow.
Ten days ago, EU officials were still insisting that it was unclear if Juncker would accept the invitation from the Kremlin to participate in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), though Russian officials already knew that he would attend.
The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) is an annual Russian business event for the economic sector, which has been held in St. Petersburg since 1997. Putin takes part in every event since 2005. According to TASS, the Russian state-controlled news agency, every year 10,000 from 70 countries take part in the event. Outside sources give a much lower figure of participants.
Juncker will be the first leader of an EU institution to visit Russia since sanctions were imposed in March 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Juncker’s visit could weigh on EU’s decision on whether to renew the sanctions on Russia, possibly strengthening President Vladimir Putin’s position.
Juncker, who has called for a “practical relationship” with Moscow, has faced criticism from some European officials who favor keeping sanctions in place.
In a statement of guiding principles issued in March, EU foreign ministers reiterated that a change in sanctions was conditional on a peace accord in Ukraine and called for better defenses against varied threats from Russia. But they also supported “selective engagement with Russia” and a “need to engage in people-to-people contacts”.
In November, Juncker wrote to Putin, suggesting closer trade ties between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union once a ceasefire was implemented in Ukraine. Putin dismissed the idea.
In October, Juncker stirred controversy by saying “we can’t go on like this” with the confrontation with Russia and that Europe should not be “dictated” to by the US.
On Friday last week, during a state visit to Greece, Putin on Friday sharply criticised western policy toward Moscow. He accused the EU and the USA of stifling trade and energy cooperation with Russia.
Some Russia-friendly EU countries are against maintaining the sanctions. Thus, Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said on Wednesday last week, after meeting Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, that Hungary will not accept an “automatic” decision regarding the sanctions currently in place until the end of July.
“EU members have to make a decision about (the sanctions) at the highest level,” Szijjarto said. “What we will not accept for sure is for the decision to take place below the surface.”
Hungary has expressed opposition to the sanctions because Russia is an important market for Hungarian goods, but has said it will abide by the EU position. (with AP, Reuters, TASS)