March 23, 2018
European Council supports UK more strongly than expected on Russia
The European Council last night produced a strong statement on Russia, going much further than the rather lukewarm support offered to the UK in the foreign affairs council on Monday. The foreign ministers stopped short of agreeing with the UK assessment, only acknowledging it and taking it seriously. The EU leaders last night went a step further, and gave their full support to the UK. In view of some briefings and news reports we have seen before yesterday's meeting, this development is a surprise.
Several countries are now considering expelling Russian diplomats. In addition to the strong statement blaming Russia for the attacks, the Times reports this morning that Latvia and Estonia are already preparing to expel diplomats, while France and Poland said they will take concrete action in the coming days. Germany hinted that it, too, would take measures.
The European Council made the following declaration last night (emphasis ours):
"It agrees with the United Kingdom government's assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security."
There are no sanctions yet agreed at the level of the European Council at this stage. The Council's official position is that it wants to wait until it receive a detailed response from Russia. The statement by the European Council was preceded by a series of bilateral meetings by Theresa May with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, both of whom signalled strong support for the UK.
The Times reports that, as May held her meetings, Vladimir Putin was in contact with Alexis Tsipras, his most loyal supporter in the EU. Greece, along with Italy, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Austria, are moving away from the EU's consensus on Russia, They had pushed for a weaker version of last night's council resolution, which would have said only that the EU took London's view of the matter "extremely seriously", similarly to the wording used by the foreign ministers on Monday.
We noted a report in FAZ - written before the meeting - which speculated wrongly that Donald Tusk's efforts to harden the language would be opposed by the European Council. And, while the EU has at this stage not agreed to a unified response, the sanctions about to be taken by individual member states are serious. The FAZ story also mentioned the strong support from Manfred Weber, head of the EPP group in the European Parliament, who yesterday talked about a
"non-declared war of Russia against the European Union,"
an expression that goes further than May's own characterisation of the attack. She stopped short of characterising the attack as an act of war, preferring to use the expression "acts of Russian aggression". Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the House of Common, talked about a "warlike act", which again is different from an act of war. These linguistic nuances may seem like hair-splitting but diplomats and lawyers spend hours haggling over these terms, which have a precise legal meaning.