The signature of a small-time visa deal is likely to form the centrepiece of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s visit to Brussels.
The so-called upgraded visa facilitation agreement (VFA) is designed to reduce paperwork and delays for some classes of Russian citizens, such as officials, academics and businessmen.
The EU foreign service told this website the pact has been “held back” by Russia’s last minute request to allow visa-free travel for its officials “which we have not been able to agree.” But it added: “We should sign the upgraded VFA as it stands now.”
What Russia really wants is visa-free travel for everybody.
The EU recently sent two delegations to Russia to see what it is doing to meet technical standards on issues such as border control. But the foreign service noted that “information gathering will need to be followed by reforms” and that the EU is not yet ready to start negotiations on a visa-free pact.
In one way, the real centrepiece will be Putin’s presence in the EU capital.
He will attend a dinner with top EU officials Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday (20 December) and a working meeting on Friday.
The last time he came, in February 2011, he created a celebrity buzz in the European Commission, with lots of EU officials who do not work on Russia crowding into the commission’s press room to see him up close.
Putin and Barroso at the time clashed on EU laws designed to limit the power of Russian energy champion Gazprom.
In the meantime, Barroso has opened a competition probe into alleged Gazprom price-fixing which could see it fined billions of euros and forced to renegotiate contracts.
But the big issue behind the scenes this time around is human rights.
Putin since coming back to power has passed several laws to make life harder for civil society, including the “foreign agents” act, which stigmatizes NGOs that receive foreign money and makes activists more vulnerable to harassment.
He has also been embarrassed by the US on Sergei Magnitsky.
US President Barack Obama on Friday signed the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which is to see it publish in the next 120 days the names of Russian officials under a visa ban and asset freeze due to their links to the murder of the anti-corruption activist in 2009.
The EU is becoming more hawkish on Magnitsky even though it shows no sign of following the US sanctions for now.
Its foreign relations spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic used bold language in criticising Russia in a statement to EUobserver last week.
She said: “The very limited steps taken so far (charges against one prison doctor; charges against a second prison doctor dropped due to a statute of limitation) are not adequate given the scope of this case and the available documentation.”
She also said: “The posthumous prosecution of Sergei Magnitsky, as well as the persecution of his mother who has been asked to testify against her own dead son, are very worrying developments.”
For its part, Russia in a pre-emptive move two weeks ago published a 66-page-long dossier of human rights problems in the EU.
But for Russian activists, such as Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 85-year-old founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Kremlin posturing should not be allowed to create a distraction.
“There is nothing more important the EU could possibly need to talk about with the Russian leadership than the future of the rule of law in its neighbor and strategic partner,” she said in an op-ed in the New York Times at the weekend.
“However difficult it is to confront Putin on human rights today, try to imagine what it will be like to discuss these issues a few years from now, when either the crackdown has become even more intense or the path of repression results in a real social explosion,” she added.
Moment of truth on tobacco
In other business, the commission will on Wednesday adopt a draft new tobacco control bill.
The law is at the centre of a controversy on tobacco lobbying. Former EU health commissioner, Malta’s John Dalli, lost his job over allegedly soliciting a bribe in order to fiddle a ban on sales of mouth tobacco outside Sweden.
His replacement, Tonio Borg, will face extra scrutiny by pro-health NGOs who worry the directive might be watered down.
Meanwhile, EU ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the environment on Monday, fish on Monday and Tuesday, and transport and telecommunications on Thursday and Friday. The environment talks will discuss a new plan on protecting EU water resources, while the fish meeting will try to reach a deal to protect cod.
The European Parliament will be in end-of-year mode, hosting meetings with Cypriot ministers to discuss Cyprus’ performance as the EU presidency country over the past six months.
MEPs will vote on Monday on whether to make the EU’s common database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints available to national police forces. Deputies, officials and EU countries’ diplomats will the same day debate a new scheme to give asylum seekers extra rights on healthcare and temporary EU residence.