http://www.praguepost.com/news/13374...ian-union.htmlWhile speculation in the lead-up to the June 4 European Union-Russia summit focused on whether EU leaders would pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to act in war-torn Syria, the meeting remained focused on strengthening economic ties between the two key trading partners.
Held in St. Petersburg, it was the first such gathering since Putin returned to the presidency last month. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Josť Manuel Barroso represented the EU, and Putin used the opportunity to press for what he called a "Eurasian Union."
"We are convinced that the setting up of the Customs Union, of the Common Economic Space, and in the future, possibly, of the Eurasian economic union, is fully compatible with the tasks of enhancing cooperation between Russia and the European Union," he said.
Brussels and Moscow have attempted to negotiate new basic parameters for their relationship off and on since 2008. Those discussions proved largely fruitless as Russia remained outside the World Trade Organization. But Russia signed up to join the WTO in December 2011, with membership likely to become active later this summer.
"The idea of the Eurasian economic union, if based on the WTO rules, could lead to positive contributions to trade, prosperity and cooperation," Putin said.
The growing crisis in Syria, a key Russian ally, dominated pre-summit hype, but received just a few mentions as the leaders held a press conference to summarize their discussions June 4. In short, the leaders seemed to agree to disagree.
The United States and EU are pushing Moscow to take increased measures against the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is accused of targeting civilians in an attempt to quell a burgeoning rebellion in the country that threatens to erupt into full-blown civil war. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has watered down or sidetracked measures touted by much of the West.
Van Rompuy said Putin had agreed that UN envoy Kofi Annan's so-called peace plan remains the best way forward in the short term, but that is likely a disappointing result as many see that plan as failing to end violence in Syria. Annan is calling for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from urban areas and a ceasefire between government and opposition forces. He is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C. June 8.
"The European Union and Russia might have some diverging assessments, but we fully agree that the Annan plan as a whole provides the best opportunity to break the cycle of violence in Syria," Van Rompuy said. "We need to combine our efforts in order for this to happen, and to find common messages on which we agree."
For its part, Russia denies it is sheltering al-Assad's regime, but during presidential campaigning earlier this year, Putin insisted he would not allow another "Libyan scenario" in Syria, a reference to NATO efforts that led to the downfall of Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The summit came a day after al-Assad denied his government forces were to blame for the May 25 massacre of more than 100 people, including scores of children, in the town of Houla, blaming the attack on "terrorists."
The UN has blamed pro-government forces, while Russian leaders have said the attack was likely carried out by opposition rebels as a "provocation." With little agreement on how to move forward in Syria, the leaders nonetheless sought to put a positive spin on the talks.
"We're listening to each other, and we understand each other," Putin said.
Barroso quoted Russian writer Alexander Pushkin in an attempt to depict the discussions as productive.
"We can try and fail, but we should not fail to try," he said.