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Financial Times: Putin dinner ‘risks’ exposing EU splits

By George Parker in Brussels and Daniel Dombeyin Luxembourg
Published: October 18 2006 03:00 | Last updated: October 18 2006 03:00

Finland’s prime minister yesterday admitted it was a “risk” to sit 25 European leaders around a dinner table this Friday with Vladimir Putin, Russian president, in the hope they could present Moscow with a united EU position.

But Matti Vanhanen said it was essential that Mr Putin heard first-hand that Europe was serious about an equal energy partnership with Russia, including the fair treatment of EU energy companies operating there.

Some diplomats fear EU leaders – some of whom have special relations with Moscow or bilateral energy deals – could appear divided at a summit dinner with Mr Putin in the Finnish city of Lahti.

The strains of finding a common EU approach to Moscow were evident yesterday when foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, called on Russia and Georgia to “tone down the rhetoric” in the bitter dispute that has seen Georgian accusations of Russian spying met by Moscow imposing sanctions and taking action against ethnic Georgians in their own territory. However, the Czech Republic complained that the communique – watered down by France and other western countries – was “softer than it needed to be”.

“Russia knows very well the differences in the EU,” Mr Vanhanen, the summit host, told the Financial Times. “But I believe this method in Lahti will place healthy pressure on -European leaders to find a common message.”

He added that he believed that “we can succeed in that. If you don’t take any risks and have real debates, what can you achieve?”

Top of his agenda will be clearing the ground for the start of talks on a new EU-Russia relationship, with energy at its heart.

Europe should press Russia to agree to an open, “market-based” form of co-operation, he said. “Then we would no longer be afraid about political interference.”

Mr Vanhanen pointed to the “problems” facing Royal Dutch Shell, accused by Russia of breaching environmental standards in its Sakhalin 2 project – a move widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to win better contract terms.

“If it’s an environmental question the company should have time enough to answer questions and a chance to give the answers,” he said.

Friday’s summit will also focus on innovation and migration and Mr Vanhanen will hold preliminary talks aimed at settling the long-running dispute over EU working time laws.

Mr Vanhanen said a deal was vital after a European Court ruled that “on call” hours worked by doctors should be counted as part of the maximum 48-hour week, placing huge potential -financial strains on health services.

“If there is no resolution then 23 member states will be in court because they can’t fulfil the existing legislation,” he said.

The key to unlocking an agreement is striking a separate deal with the UK over its “opt-out” from the 48-hour week, since the two issues have become entwined.

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