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EU extends economic sanctions against Russia, agrees to new defense force

EU leaders agreed to continue economic sanctions against Russia for another six months. Meeting at a summit in Brussels, the bloc's top politicians also discussed migration and security, revealing national differences.

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EU leaders' summit focuses on Brexit and migration

European Union leaders extended tough economic sanctions leveled at Russia over the country's role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

"EU united on roll-over of economic sanctions on Russia," European Council President Donald Tusk posted on Twitter on Thursday, as leaders met for a summit in Brussels.

The EU put the sanctions, which target the financial, energy and defense industries and limit Russian access to EU markets, in place in July 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the sanctions extension.

"[It is] an important political decision by the leaders of the European Union to continue economic sanctions against Russia for violating Ukraine's territorial integrity and unwillingness to stop hybrid aggression against our country," Poroshenko wrote on his official Facebook page.

The EU has tied lifting the sanctions to Moscow implementing the Minsk peace agreement, which calls for an unconditional ceasefire and for both sides to pull heavy weapons from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.

New European defense force

Leaders of 25 of the EU's 28 members also agreed to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together. The UK, which will be leaving the bloc, Denmark and Malta were the only countries not to join the deal, known as the Permanent Structured Cooperation or PESCO.

The move, which some observers have said will reduce the EU's reliance on the United States, comes at a time when European politicians are looking across the Atlantic to US President Donald Trump with trepidation.

"More than half a century ago, an ambitious vision of the European Defense Community was created but what was missing was the unity and courage to put it into practice," Tusk said. "The dream was at odds with reality. Today this dream becomes reality."

'Bad news' for EU enemies

Tusk went on to call the agreement "bad news for our enemies."

French President Emmanuel Macron had provided a new impetus to efforts to revive defense cooperation after Britons voted in 2016 to leave the bloc and called the pact "concrete progress." Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the pact would make the EU more agile abroad and would support NATO.

German soldiers (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer)

NATO's head said the new force must not duplicate the role the alliance already fills

Unlike previous efforts to integrate European defense spending and forces, the NATO alliance backs the PESCO project. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, however, said efforts needed to be made to avoid the new force duplicating NATO's capabilities.

"There has to be coherence between the capability developments of NATO and the European Union," said Stoltenberg, who attended the Brussels summit. "We cannot risk ending up with conflicting requirements from the EU and from NATO to the same nations."

Issues remain about financing future EU missions. An EU defense fund, with money from the European Commission for the first time, still needs to be approved, although a pilot phase is already underway for defense research.

The UK had long hindered closer cooperation among European militaries, but the British decision to leave the bloc is likely to simplify the integration process for the rest of the EU.

Watch video 02:33

Brexit optimism dampened at EU summit in Brussels

At odds over migration

However, EU divisions were still on display when the leaders discussed the topic of migration and refugee allocation. The Visegrad Four — the eastern European nations of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — announced that they planned to put around €35 million ($41 million) into a project to increase the bloc's border security in Libya, a starting point for many migrants looking to make the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing. 

Read more: EU reignites dispute over refugee quotas ahead of Brussels summit

Other EU countries have criticized the Visegrad Four for failing to contribute adequately to solutions to manage migration into the bloc, such as country quotas for refugee intake. At Thursday's summit, the four continued to oppose quotas. 

"Quotas do not work, they are ineffective," Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said. "The decision on quotas really divided the European Union," he added, referring to the European Commission's desire to introduce obligatory quotas.

Angela Merkel between two EU flags at the start of the EU summit in Brussels (picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/O.Matthys)

Merkel arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday

European Council President Tusk also criticized the executive branch Commission's quota plan in pre-summit comments, calling it "ineffective" and "highly divisive."

But other EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned that Tusk's approach would not sufficiently address the migration crisis and risked weakening solidarity within the bloc.

"We need solidarity not just in regulating and steering migration ... on the external borders. That is good and important, but we also need internal solidarity," Merkel said. "In my opinion, there cannot be selective solidarity among European member states."

The EU leaders are expected to discuss migration further on Friday, as well as decide on whether enough progress has been made in Brexit negotiations to move forward and tackle the topic of the post-divorce relationship between the UK and the EU.

 

cmb, sms, nm/se (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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