The Russia-EU summit in Rostov-on-Don was the twenty-fifth of its kind, and journalists and diplomats have become accustomed to these biannual meetings between EU leaders and the Russian president.
However, this latest summit was special. A new Russia-EU agreement on readmission entered into force during the summit, allowing EU authorities to return illegal immigrants from third countries to Russia.
Moreover, the current summit was the first one since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect. As a result, at this summit the EU delegation was headed by both President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy. The European press often calls Van Rompuy the EU president for short, although this quiet official does not fit the mold of an all-powerful head of a super state.
The European Commission, the European Council and the Council of Europe - it can be difficult to keep them all straight. They are, in fact, separate bodies, but they are united by their potential to grow into a sprawling bureaucratic jungle in which even the most obvious decision can get lost - for example, the decision on Russia's proposal to introduce visa-free travel between Russia and the EU.
President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed before the summit that Russia is ready to drop visa requirements tomorrow. He also suggested discussing the possibility of allowing Russian citizens to remain in EU countries without visas for short periods of time, but this proposal found no support with the EU leaders either. Let's skip the numerous arguments in favor of visa-free travel, such as greater contacts and increased tourism (primarily Russian tourists traveling in the EU, which would benefit the impoverished southern EU countries), etc. Let's ignore the pros and have a serious discussion on the cons.
The visa barrier between the EU and its eastern neighbors has been growing stronger since the 1990s as a result of Europe's fear of a wave of poor immigrants from the East. As it turns out, this fear was unjustified. Even after Poland joined the EU and all restrictions on Polish immigration were lifted, Poles continued to immigrate to other European countries legally for jobs they had already secured and with enough travel money in their pockets.
There was no wave of immigrants from Belarus, Ukraine or Russia, even though Ukrainians, for example, can get a Schengen visa from Poland free of charge. Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's representative to the EU, said that "the Europeans ultimately got their wave, but it was from the South not the East." Africans are fleeing to Spain, Italy and even to the Canary Islands on rubber boats. Meanwhile, the EU formally allows visa-free travel from many African countries.
Timofei Bordachyov, an expert on the EU and the director of the Center for European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, said that the EU's fear of immigration from Central Asian countries, Afghanistan and China is unfounded, as travelers from these countries can be identified and their movements tracked without a visa. Travelers present their IDs many times - when buying air tickets, registering at a hotel, etc. If an illegal immigrant is deported from the EU, under the new law on readmission that entered into force on June 1 of this year, they need only be turned over to Russian border guards.
In today's world, a visa is an unnecessary formality, an expensive piece of paper that allows consulates and travel agencies to make money. This is why they limit stays and deny multiple entry visas even to applicants who have proved their financial and moral worth.
By advocating visa-free travel between Russia and the EU, Medvedev has shown himself to be more of a euro enthusiast than the officials in Brussels. Why is poor, Islamic Albania considered more European than Russia (or Belarus, Ukraine and other CIS states, for that matter)? Russia, unlike Albania, does not seek to join the EU and NATO. All Russia wants is for its citizens to be allowed to travel to the EU without a visa - a right the EU grants to citizens of fifty other countries around the world. The proposal is simple - Russians would be allowed to remain in the Schengen Area for up to three months in a six-month period.
The Russian proposal represents a practical step towards implementing the Partnership for Modernization initiative, adopted by the Russia-EU summit in Stockholm last November, which was invoked repeatedly at the most recent summit.
Russia is open about its need for European technology and experts as part of its modernization drive. Russia is building the Skolkovo School of Management for these guests, and it is offering to pay them high salaries and spare them a hassle at the consulates. So, it appears that Russia is an open country, while the super-civilized EU is closed. The EU is already thinking up new excuses for turning its back on cooperation. The Center for European Reform (CER), for instance, has recommended that European technology should not be made available for projects with Russian participation. Do the authors of this recommendation know of any country where the state does participate in high-tech projects?
The latest summit in Rostov-on-Don was the twenty-fifth of its kind, but they have not yet become a routine affair. New sources of contention crop up all the time - the war in Georgia, the Polish veto on negotiating a new Russia-EU treaty, or more problems with the Siberia-Germany heat pipeline.
European officials and most media outlets traditionally blame Russia for all the headaches and criticize it for its alleged reluctance to become part of Europe. But these pan-European problems can only be solved if the EU admits that they are common problems, that both sides are partly to blame and that the EU must work together with Russia to solve them. The simple fact is that Russia has long been a part of Europe, whether the politicians in European capitals, including Moscow, want to admit it or not.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich)