Despite Brexit, Britain wins EU support on nerve agent attack
BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – The European Union expressed solidarity with Britain after London accused Russia of a nerve agent attack on British soil, but EU diplomats cautioned there was little appetite for more economic sanctions on Moscow.
Despite tensions over the slow pace of negotiations with Britain over London’s decision to quit the bloc next year, the EU and NATO reacted quickly after May’s speech in the British parliament on Monday on the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33.
The case poses a test for post-Brexit security cooperation. Russia, the EU’s biggest energy supplier, is also accused of backing war in Ukraine and meddling in U.S., French and German elections.
The office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called use of the Soviet-era nerve agent“shocking” and said the European Union was“ready to offer support if requested”. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was“horrendous.”
European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans called on the bloc to express“its full solidarity with the British people and the British government” and make a collective European effort to find and punish those responsible.
Speaking separately to the EU, France said the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent on March 4 was a“totally unacceptable attack”.
The statement followed a telephone call between Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his British counterpart Boris Johnson. But it made no mention of Russia, which Prime Minister Theresa May said was“highly likely” to be behind the attack.
Outgoing German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he had called Johnson and remained in close touch with British authorities.
“It’s clear the perpetrators must be held accountable. If it should be confirmed that Russia was behind (the attack), that would be a very serious incident,” Gabriel said in a statement.
Britain has given President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to explain how the nerve agent was used to strike down Skripal, who had passed secrets to British intelligence.
If that deadline passes, Britain could ask for EU governments to consider new asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials not already under sanctions related to Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Britain could also call a special meeting at NATO.
Next Monday at a monthly meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers are due to discuss Russia’s presidential election on March 18, which Putin is expected to win, potentially giving Britain’s Johnson a chance to appeal to EU governments.
May herself could directly discuss the issues with fellow leaders in Brussels at a two-day summit in May, and Timmermans said the issue should be on the agenda.
“We cannot have nerve gas being used in our societies. This should be addressed by all of us, and not just left to Prime Minister May and the British government,” Timmermans, who as Dutch foreign minister in 2014 accused Russia of downing an airliner flying from Amsterdam over Ukraine, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Echoing the EU’s top diplomat Mogherini, four senior EU diplomats told Reuters that Brussels would wait until Britain itself has taken a view on how to respond before making any policy moves of its own. They dismissed any suggestion that Brexit weakened London’s position.
“Brexit shouldn’t have any effect on this,” one said.
Norbert Roettgen, chairman of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that if Russia fails to cooperate in the investigation, there should be a joint Western response.
But in Brussels, diplomats said additional sanctions on Russia were unlikely to win support because attributing the nerve attack to Moscow was difficult and also because keeping existing economic sanctions on Russia was already difficult.
“Despite the seriousness of this incident, I just don’t see agreement (on new sanctions),” a second EU diplomat said, predicting a strong statement of support instead.
A third diplomat said that Britain and France had been unable to persuade the rest of the bloc to impose additional sanctions on Russians over Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria.
Countries seeking closer ties with Russia, notably Italy, Hungary and Greece, are wary of further damaging business.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Angus MacSwan