European leaders clashed over a Franco-German initiative for an EU summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, as critics warned against “free concessions” at a time of worsening relations with the Kremlin.

Ahead of an EU leaders’ meeting about the surprise Franco-German proposal, Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s prime minister, warned against giving away too much to Putin, while Poland’s prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said dialogue should only happen if there was “actual de-escalation”.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said any meeting with Putin should be limited to the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, rather than involving all member states. Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, told the Financial Times the idea was “irresponsible” and a case of “historical myopia”.

Berlin and Paris wrongfooted their EU partners on Wednesday by floating their proposal on the eve of the leaders’ summit in Brussels. The Franco-German initiative followed last week’s meeting between US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart in Geneva, which was designed to stabilise deteriorating US-Russian relations.

Arriving for the EU summit on Thursday, Karins said he was “all for the dialogue” but that it must come at “a certain cost to Russia” given its actions including the 2014 annexation of Crimea and military incursions in eastern Ukraine.

“The Kremlin understands power politics,” Karins said. “The Kremlin does not understand free concessions as a sign of strength.”

EU summits with Russia have been suspended since the Crimea annexation. The last one took place in January 2014 between Putin and the then European Commission and European Council presidents.

Speaking in the Bundestag on Thursday, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU should seek “direct contact” with Russia in the same way that Biden did. “It isn’t enough when US president Joe Biden speaks to the Russian president,” she told German lawmakers. “I welcome it, but the EU must also create formats for dialogues. Otherwise, we won’t be able to solve conflicts.”

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, later said he hoped to have a “demanding and ambitious” dialogue with Russia, built upon a foundation of European co-ordination and unity, and insisted the EU could not remain purely reactive when dealing with Russia.

Merkel and Macron won support from Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, who said on Wednesday he was “very happy there is movement towards dialogue with Russia”.

“We are closer to Russia geographically than the US, and the EU cannot simply watch as the US and Russia are having a dialogue,” said Kurz. “There are topics like the Ukraine that concern us more than the US.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was “positive” about the proposal, and was watching for a sign of agreement from the EU’s 27 members.

“We assess the initiative positively,” Peskov told reporters on Thursday. “President Putin is a supporter of the restoration of the mechanism of dialogue and contacts between Brussels and Moscow.”

But Landsbergis told the FT on Wednesday that to restart meetings with Russia when Moscow “is the closest to the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism it has been for over three decades is irresponsible”.

The Lithuanian foreign minister added: “To fall into a trap once or twice may be regarded as a misfortune, but to continue doing so decade after decade looks like historical myopia.”

Given the EU’s divisions, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned that it was unclear if the summit would ever happen. “We don’t even know whether the rest of the EU members agree with this,” he said.

Defenders of the German-French initiative pointed to tougher elements in their proposed text for the EU meeting, which vowed to seek a “firm and co-ordinated response” to any further “malign, illegal and disruptive activity” by Russia. It also floated the possibility of economic sanctions as part of the EU’s armoury when dealing with Russia.

But after a late-night Wednesday meeting among ambassadors, the most difficult points were left for leaders to sort out — in particular a “review” of “the existing formats of dialogue with Russia, including at Leaders’ level”.

As he arrived for the summit, Rutte pointed to a possible way through the member states’ differences by suggesting he would be willing to see a summit between Putin and the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, but he would “not participate”.

The Brussels summit will also entail a debate on a lengthy list of areas earmarked by Germany and France for “selective engagement” with Russia.

These include the environment, the Arctic, cross-border co-operation, energy, health, space, and the fight against terrorism and organised crime. Also on the list are foreign policy issues, including the Iran nuclear accord, Syria and Libya.

Merkel on Thursday said the EU must “define an agenda of common strategic interests” with Russia. But she sought to dispel the impression that she was trying to cosy up to Putin.

She said that individual EU member states were reacting in an “uncoordinated way” to “the multitude of Russian provocations” and needed to better harmonise their approach.

“We have to create mechanisms that would allow us to react in a united and collective manner to [such] provocations,” she added. “Only this way will we learn to confront Russia’s hybrid attacks.”

Merkel, who was giving her last speech to the Bundestag as chancellor ahead of federal elections in September, stressed that, because of its special “responsibility” to Ukraine, Belarus and the countries of the western Balkans, the EU “has to give an appropriate response to Russian activities” in those countries.



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