UK’s May wins EU backing for holding Russia responsible for Salisbury attack

Federica Mogherini, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron on 22 March 2018. [Council]

EU leaders backed Britain in the night of 22 to 23 March in blaming Moscow over a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in England, and agreed to recall their ambassador to Moscow for consultations.

May accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were found unconscious in the city of Salisbury on 4 March.

At a summit in Brussels, the 28 EU leaders offered her their full support, agreeing “that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation”.

They pledged to “coordinate on the consequences”, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said they had agreed to recall the bloc’s ambassador to Moscow for consultations.

“Some member states are looking into possibly expelling Russian diplomats or recalling national diplomats,” an EU official added.

Tit-for-tat reaction

Moscow strongly denies any involvement but London has identified the chemical used as the Soviet-designed Novichok, and says Russia had the means and the motive to carry out the attack.

The attack has sparked tit-for-tat retaliatory action, with May’s decision to expel 23 Russian “undeclared intelligence officials” followed by similar measures from Moscow, including the closure of Britain’s cultural centre in Russia’s second city of St Petersburg.

Over a dinner of lamb, May called on EU leaders to work together to confront the challenge Russia presented, saying that the attack in Salisbury was “part of a wider pattern of behaviour” by a country to thwart international norms.

“Russia staged a brazen and reckless attack against the United Kingdom,” May told reporters in Brussels. “It’s clear that the Russian threat does not respect borders and indeed the incident in Salisbury was a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours.”

Diplomatic expulsions

The United States, France and Germany offered early backing for the conclusion that Moscow was to blame for the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.

But Britain’s efforts to win a tough line from all 28 EU members ran up against countries keen to protect their Kremlin ties, notably Greece and Italy.

May met French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shortly before the dinner, and both called for a “strong European message”, their offices said.

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats they said were spies, and has been pressing EU allies to follow suit.

Lithuania’s outspoken President Dalia Grybauskaite said: “All of us we are considering such measures.”

A French presidency source earlier said Paris was also ready to act.

“Some countries, like France, are ready for possible measures to be decided at a national level in cooperation with other European countries,” the source said.

Bulgarian PM not sure Moscow was behind Salisbury attack

Bulgaria’s Premier Minister Boyko Borissov is not sure that Russia was behind the Salisbury poisoning case and insisted that it’s more important to identify the “sponsors” of the attack.

The discussion over dinner on the issue of the Salisbury attack took four hours. A few minutes past midnight the Conclusions on this issue became available online.

Partial summit conclusions went a little further than the text adopted at the level of foreign ministers on Monday. Leaders stated that they “agree” with the UK assessment that it is highly likely that Russia is responsible, and added that “there is no plausible alternative explanation”.

“The European Council condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent attack in Salisbury […] 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”, the summit conclusions read.

In comparison, the ministers adopted the following text:

“The European Union strongly condemns the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury […]. The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible.[…] The European Union expresses its unqualified solidarity with the UK and its support, including for the UK’s efforts to bring those responsible for this crime to justice.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies and diplomats said Poland could do so too.

Russia published on Wednesday an “aide memoire” on the Skripal case, which says among other things that “works to develop the agent codenamed “Novichok” in the West had been carried out by the United Kingdom, the USA, Sweden and the Czech Republic”. “There are more than 200 open sources publications in the NATO countries, highlighting the results that those countries achieved in the development of new toxic agents of this type”, the Russian foreign ministry states.

The summit ended at one past midnight, without press conferences and without further conclusions. A Council official said the leaders had agreed that the “leaders’ meeting” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Varna on 26 March would be held. Reportedly text to the conclusions has been added urging Turkey to free two Greek soldiers who inadvertently crossed the border by bad weather and were arrested in Turkey.

EU-Turkey Varna summit becomes conditional

Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades succeded on Friday (23 February) in convincing his colleagues at the EU summit to make a planned “leaders’ meeting” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Varna conditional on stopping “illegal violations” in the Cypriot economic zone.

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