France animated the first day of talks at an otherwise lacklustre EU summit in Brussels with martial statements on Syria.
"We want the Europeans to lift the embargo on the weapons," French President François Hollande said. "Since we have to put pressure on and show we are ready to support the opposition, we have to go that far. That is what I will tell my European colleagues.
"Britain and France agree on this option."
Fundamental divisions between EU leaders and Moscow over lifting an arms embargo imposed on all sides in the Syrian civil war were set to dominate Friday summit talks dedicated to Russia.
Although EU approaches to the Syrian civil war are off the summit’s agenda, having been discussed at length in the Foreign Affairs Council earlier this week, the turbulent Middle East situation is inextricably intertwined with the EU’s Russia relationship.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius suggested that France and Britain are ready to brush aside concerns from other European countries about arming the Syrian opposition.
“Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically” in Syria, Fabius said on France-Info radio on 13 March.
The UK has also adopted a hawkish position in recent days, reflecting a distinct hardening of Washington’s policy towards Syria since John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state on 1 February.
Russia warns against arming rebels
London has indicated that the issue of the embargo could be revisited in the coming weeks, suggesting it accepts that arming the rebels could be an option.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Council President Herman Van Rompuy together agreed that the issue of Syria should be discussed at the summit in a last minute turnaround. "It is two years since civilians started being killed, it is the right moment," said diplomatic sources.
Russia, which is supplying weapons to the Syrian military, strongly opposes arms supplies to the rebels.
The UK and Russia held bilateral talks in London on 13 March between the foreign secretary, William Hague, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a meeting also attended by defence ministers Philip Hammond and Sergei Shoigu.
Speaking after the talks with Hague, Lavrov said the supply of lethal weapons to the rebels would be illegal. "International law doesn't allow, doesn't permit, the supplies of arms to non-governmental actors. It's a violation of international law," he said.
France and UK both want action before May, when the EU will revisit the embargo issue in Council. Both countries could block any embargo in the May 1 meeting to achieve the end of clearing the way to arm the rebel factions. However that would mean delaying the issue until May, and also raise legal questions about the decision to proceed unilaterally.
They are likely to consider how much support there might be to unanimously overturn the embargo on supplying arms to the rebels amongst EU member states before May.
The London UK-Russia meeting was an attempt to thaw chilly relations between the pair in recent years, which have witnessed a botched attempt by Britain to spy on the Russians using a mobile ‘spy rock’ in Moscow, and the poisoning with polonium in London – attributed by the UK to Russian agents – of dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
No conclusions on Russia
The EU leaders' debate on Russia is not designed to reach conclusions, and it is hoped that this will allow the leaders to explain frankly where they stand on EU–Russia relations.
At issue is the extent to which the bloc should unite behind a harder line position which dictates the terms of engagement.
That approach would be favoured by France and Britain. But EU member states hold a variety of contrasting and complex positions with Russia, making it difficult to find a common position.
Germany favours a more ad-hoc approach, engaging with Russia in a piecemeal manner, enabling progress to be made on trade issues whilst compartmentalising the ‘problem issues’ relating to alleged human rights violations and trade dominance questions over energy.
Also at stake is a deal between the EU and Russia that could allow up to 15,000 Russian officials to travel freely around the EU.
Germany has withdrawn its objection to the idea of visa-free travel for Russian officials, which for much of the past year had been the major obstacle to an update of an EU-Russia visa-facilitation agreement dating from 2006. It is now the only issue, said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU.
Meanwhile Central European countries have a series of contrasting fears and needs in relation to Russia, forged by history and geography, reliance on Russian gas supplies, and an increase in Russian influence in the years since the crisis hit.
Patchwork of conflicting interests
Russian-Polish relations remain chilly, whilst Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called last month for a new European settlement with Russia, and the Lithuanian and Finnish foreign ministers have also called for closer engagement with Russia in relation to the Baltic Sea environment.
“The potential for economic growth in the eastern Europe remains higher than in the older member states,” Wilhelm Molterer, vice-president of the European Investment Bank, told the Austrian financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt on 7 March.
Molterer said that Russian financial engagement in Central Europe and Turkey was growing and filling the vacuum left by struggling western European banks.
“With its [Russian Sberbank’s] recent purchase of [Turkish] Denizbank, Russia has become stronger in Turkey,” Molterer said, adding that Sberbank’s recent purchase of Austrian Volksbank’s international arm, had given it “a foot in the door” in Central Europe.
European commissioners will hold a joint session with the Russian government in Moscow on 21 March.
Officials have suggested that agreement on the visa issue could be reached at that meeting, but much will depend on Friday's meeting in Brussels.