MOSCOW — Russian and European Union leaders have resolved a dispute over a Russian ban on EU vegetable imports at the second day of a summit in the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod.
The tense twice-yearly closed-door summit was also expected to feature talks on easing visa restrictions for Russians traveling to the 27-member EU bloc and further Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
But the vegetable spat topped the agenda at the talks, attended by President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and European Council President Herman van Rompuy.
After a break, Russian officials said they would eliminate the ban once they receive EU guarantees that they are safe.
Russia imposed a trade embargo on EU vegetables last week after the outbreak of a rare strain of E. coli bacteria that has killed some 30 people in Europe and infected another 2,600, mainly in Germany. Russia’s response has enraged Brussels where ministers argue that the ban imposed by its largest consumer of vegetables is “disproportionate.”
On the eve of the summit, Dutch Agricultural Minister Hans Bleker was skeptical that the issue would be ironed out in time, expressing “no expectations that there will be an end to the export ban within a couple of days.”
Russia had been adamant ahead of the summit that it would not lift the ban until the source of the outbreak was identified — something German scientists say might never happen.
The breakthrough apparently came after German authorities expressed confidence on June 10 that they had identified the likely green culprit as sprouts grown from beans or peas.
Brussels, worried by farmers struggling to cope with their decimated livelihood, had upped the pressure on Russia, accusing it of violating the rules for entering the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin retorted that Moscow was not prepared to “poison” its people for the sake of entering the WTO.
Pushing And Shoving
After 18 years of accession talks, Russia’s is by far the largest world economy outside the global trade club. But at the last EU-Russia Summit in December, the two sides agreed to remove barriers to Russia’s accession.
Ahead of the summit that in the past has been marred by disputes over gas and human rights, Barroso tried to calm the rhetoric. “I am confident that our talks will help Russia to walk the final mile towards WTO accession, which is still possible this year,” Barroso said.
Moscow and Brussels were also expected to discuss cooperation in the energy sphere, while Russia was expected to make a push for greater access to the EU’s energy markets.
Chris Weafer, an analyst who billed the talks as the “veggie summit,” wrote in a note to investors that EU officials “will probably also look for assurance from Moscow that there is no risk of a winter gas dispute with Ukraine.”
Ukraine renegotiates the price it pays for Russian gas at the end of every year, which has led to spats between Kyiv and Moscow in the past and left the European Union with gas shortages at the height of winter. Roughly 80 percent of Russian gas destined for the EU transits Ukraine.
Ukraine buys Russian gas at a subsidized rate, but fluctuations in the oil market — which has a knock-on effect on gas prices — mean that in the final quarter of 2011 it may have to fork out almost double what it paid in January, raising the possibility of a crisis.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has asked EU leaders to broach the “hostile climate” for rights workers in talks after it found that activists to have been “targeted on the eve of the summit.”