EU heads of state and government agreed tonight (15 December) to roll over sanctions against Russia over its actions in the Ukraine for a further six months, ticking off one element of an otherwise problematic and late-running summit.
They also signed off on a statement aimed at reassuring Dutch voters – who vetoed an EU-Ukraine Association deal in a referendum earlier this year – that the pact did not lead to Ukraine’s candidate status as a potential EU member.
As well as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine, Dutch voters were angry at the shooting down of a passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014, killing 193 Dutch from a death toll of 298.
Condensing the summit from two days to one meant that by early evening the 28 leaders had only just finished lunch, and were running some three hours behind schedule.
The decision to roll over sanctions – led by France and Germany – had been widely expected, even though François Fillon, the centre-right candidate for French president was in Brussels during the day, and was spotted having a meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Fillon is seen to be more sympathetic to Moscow than outgoing President François Hollande, or likely rival Marine Le Pen.
Various sources confirmed the extension of sanctions.
“Yes, six months rollover,” one of the sources told AFP when asked whether European Union leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels had extended the measures.
Another source said a formal decision would be “adopted in the next few days”.
Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande pushed for the roll over because Moscow was not meeting its commitments under the Minsk ceasefire.
The 28-strong bloc imposed economic sanctions on Russia after the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
The sanctions have been rolled over regularly since then but several member states, led by Italy, have increasingly questioned their effectiveness and cost.
Donald Trump’s shock US election victory added to the doubts, given his apparently softer line on Russia, prompting a debate over whether they should be extended for six months or three.
The West says Russia supplies the rebels with military hardware and assistance, a charge Moscow denies although it says it does support their cause.
Besides the economic measures, which target Russia’s oil, financial and military sectors, the EU has also imposed a separate series of travel bans and asset freeze sanctions against Ukraine and Russian figures deemed to have undermined Ukrainian territorial integrity. These sanctions expire in March.
Similar sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea run until the end of June 2017.
Dutch doubts over Ukraine ‘Association Agreement’
Separately, the 28 EU leaders agreed to give the Netherlands guarantees that will enable it to ratify the bloc’s association pact with Ukraine, which Dutch voters rejected in a referendum.
That amounts to a series of declarations of what the EU-Ukraine deal is not – namely, conferring candidate status on Ukraine as a potential EU member, or granting Ukraine nationals the right to work or live within the EU.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pleasant, but it is necessary, because it ensures that the EU can continue to form a united front against destabilising Russian foreign policy.”
The statement, in an annex to the summit conclusions, pledges to continue the fight against corruption within Ukraine without committing any member state to additional financial support for Kyiv.
Rutte will now take the agreement to the Dutch parliament in an attempt to win its approval and overwrite the referendum result.
Poland and some other EU states were annoyed with the Dutch demands but in the end decided they did not want to jeopardise the entire agreement.