EU delays decision on Russia partnership talks

BRUSSELS Thu Oct 16, 2008 8:43am EDT

(L-R) France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon and President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating Presidency of EU, European Parliament Chairman Hans-Gert Poettering and EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Pool/Gerard Cerles

(L-R) France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon and President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating Presidency of EU, European Parliament Chairman Hans-Gert Poettering and EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, October 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Pool/Gerard Cerles

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders were to delay on Thursday a decision on when to restart talks with Russia on a partnership pact, suspended after Russia's incursion into Georgia in August, officials said.

A draft statement due to be approved by leaders at the final session of a two-day summit welcomed the withdrawal of Russian troops from buffer zones in Georgia but fell short of saying that partnership talks could start again.

Asked when the EU would decide to resume the talks, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "I hope very much that will be before the Nov 14," referring to a long-scheduled EU-Russia summit in Nice, France.

But the draft statement left the question open.

"The European Council is asking the (European) Commission and the Council (of foreign ministers) to continue a full in-depth evaluation of EU-Russia relations with a view to the forthcoming (EU-Russia) summit," said a copy of the final draft statement obtained by Reuters.

"It will be taken into account in the further negotiations for a new Partnership Agreement with Russia," it added.

An earlier version had said talks would resume in November but EU President France failed to convince all its partners to agree to this.

Poland, Sweden and three ex-Soviet Baltic states have led resistance to any quick thaw with Moscow, and Britain has also said the EU should make sure Russia is fully abiding by an EU-brokered ceasefire agreement before resuming negotiations.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner -- who is preparing the "audit" of EU-Russia ties -- said she expected to have it ready in time for EU foreign ministers to make a decision on the restart at a regular meeting on November 10.

At issue is a military Russian presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia far larger than before fighting began on August 7, and a Russian outpost in the disputed pocket of Akhalgori.

Talks on the disputed regions broke down as soon as they began in Geneva on Wednesday and were suspended until November 18 after diplomats failed to get Georgia and Russia to agree on who was allowed to take part.

Some EU capitals have suggested they want to see progress in the Geneva talks before restarting the negotiations with Russia, but Solana said he saw no linkage between the two issues.

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mark John and Paul Taylor)

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