European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has agreed to attend an event in Russia next month, a Commission spokeswoman said on Monday, in a move that may stir debate on the EU’s fraught relations with Moscow.
“President Juncker has been invited and plans to participate in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16,” the spokeswoman said. “He will use this opportunity to convey to the Russian leadership as well as to a wider audience the EU’s perspective regarding the current state of EU-Russia relations.”
Juncker has faced criticism from some European officials who take a hard line upholding economic sanctions imposed by the EU and United States on Russia in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian rebels. The former Luxembourg premier has called for a “practical relationship” with Moscow.
The spokeswoman stressed that the Commission, the executive arm of the EU, “fully shares” the main principles of the approach to Russia agreed by the 28 member governments.
In a statement of guiding principles issued in March, EU foreign ministers reiterated that a change in sanctions was conditional on a peace accord in Ukraine and called for better defences against varied threats from Russia. But they also supported “selective engagement with Russia” and a “need to engage in people-to-people contacts”.
In November, Juncker wrote to President Vladimir Putin, suggesting closer trade ties between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union once a ceasefire was implemented in Ukraine. The Kremlin dismissed the idea.
In October, the EU chief executive stirred controversy by saying of the confrontation “we can’t go on like this” and that Europe should not be “dictated” to by Washington over Russia.
Ten days ago, EU officials had said it was unclear if Juncker would accept the invitation from the Kremlin, though Russian officials were then expecting him to attend.
An EU official at the time described any such visit as a “high risk” politically, and stressed that Juncker’s attendance would depend on there being no major deterioration in relations with Russia before then.