BRUSSELS (AFP) — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday that he is in favour of Russia becoming a member of the European Union, a "vision" he has held for several years.
"I consider Russia to be a Western country and my plan is for the Russian Federation to be able to become a member of the European Union in the coming years," Berlusconi told reporters in Brussels.
He said that first of all the European Union should resume talks with Moscow on a partnership agreement that was suspended following a war between Russia and Georgia in August.
"Me, I want to go further. I have had this vision for years," Berlusconi said as he arrived in Brussels for an EU summit.
The Italian prime minister has had a friendly relationship with Russian Prime Minister Putin for several years and invited the former president of Russia, along with his family, to stay at his private residence on the island of Sardinia.
The EU suspended talks on a partnership agreement with Moscow on September 1 in protest at Russia's formal recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Relations are fraught over a number of other areas including over the eastwards enlargement of the EU to former Soviet-bloc nations, US plans for elements of a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and expansion of the NATO military alliance.
Russia in turn has been accused of using its status as a major hydrocarbons exporter to political ends and has faced criticisms over alleged human rights abuses and democratic flaws in this year's presidential election.
But Moscow and the EU need each other. Russia is the main source of Europe's oil and gas and Russia is a major and fast-growing market for the continent's firms.
More Russian exports go to the EU than anywhere else while Russia is the bloc's third biggest trade partner after the United States and China.
Politically too, Moscow has close ties with Europe. Of all countries with which the EU has tight relations, it has the most frequent official meetings with Russia. Two EU-Russia summits are held annually compared with only one with the United States and China.
There are also regular meetings with the Russian foreign minister as well as numerous forums on subjects ranging from human rights to investment, justice issues and culture.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency and which brokered a six-point Russia-Georgia ceasefire agreement, has indicated that he is in favour of resuming talks on the stalled new cooperation pact.
Currently, their relations are governed by a partnership accord that dates from 1997, when Russia was still suffering economically from the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The new partnership pact is supposed to deepen relations between the two sides both politically and economically and especially as regards energy supplies to Europe, eager to secure gas and oil supply guarantees.
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