European Union foreign ministers looked set to approve the re-launch of talks on a strategic treaty with Russia on Monday as the two most influential critics of any deal, Britain and Sweden, called for the EU to return to the negotiating table, reproted dpa.
"While noting that a strategic partnership with Russia based on common values is not in place as of today, we can support resuming negotiations ... because we believe that the issues that will be covered are in the EU's interests as well as Russia's," the two countries' foreign ministers said in a statement.
"We are not returning to business as usual, nor are we turning the page on the conflict in Georgia. The EU will stick to the tough mandate that has been agreed for the negotiations," the statement said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
The move leaves Poland and Lithuania, two EU newcomers, isolated and under pressure from the rest of the bloc to approve new talks.
"If we don't have EU-Russia negotiations, do you think anyone wouldn't negotiate with Russia? Would it be in Lithuania's or Poland's interest to have other countries reaching bilateral agreements with Russia?" European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on Friday.
On September 1, following Russia's occupation of parts of Georgia, EU leaders at an emergency summit decided to postpone talks on the so-called "New EU-Russia Agreement" until Russia troops pulled back to the lines they occupied before the war broke out on August 7.
The new agreement is meant to replace a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1997, and is intended to give a legal basis to EU-Russia relations on everything from energy to culture.
Following the September summit, Russia pulled its troops out of most, but not all, parts of Georgia.
"Russia has not yet withdrawn to its pre-August 7 positions as the EU has made clear that it must," the British-Swedish paper said.
Nonetheless, in recent weeks the French government, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and the bloc's executive, the European Commission, called for a re-start of talks.
"These negotiations should continue, first because this would allow the EU to pursue its own interests with Russia, and secondly because this is the best way to engage with Russia on the basis of a unified position," the commission said in a report on Wednesday.
Lithuania and Poland, who feel targeted by a Russian threat to site missiles in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, criticized that call, saying it rewarded Russia's occupation of Georgia.
But a number of EU states warned that any further halt in talks would fragment the bloc, leaving member states free to cut their own deals with Moscow.
"The choice is very clear: do we want to bilateralize our relations with Russia or do we want to have a clear EU-Russia policy?" Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said.