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EU majority stands with UK on Russia

March 27, 2018

Seventeen EU countries have announced that they will expel Russian diplomats. Yet how sustainable is solidarity with the UK — and what other measures could come next? Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

NATO headquarters in Brussels
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

NATO sends home Russian diplomats over spy case

European Council President Donald Tusk realized Monday was not the best day to announce the expulsion of Russian diplomats. Russia is currently mourning the deaths of dozens of people in a massive shopping mall fire in Siberia. Therefore, Tusk delivered a short statement in Russian: "We are taking steps against the Russian government and not against the Russian people. Our hearts and our thoughts are with you." 

After Tusk's announcement, several EU diplomats acknowledged that the timing was unfortunate. But, they added, once the coordinated step of expelling Russian diplomats from embassies and consulates in more than 20 countries worldwide had been set in motion, it was impossible to stop it.

Read more: Germany expels diplomats over Skripal poisoning

EU leaders are proud of the successful coordination of the bloc's 14 original member states to expel a number of Russian diplomats in the wake of the Kremlin's reported poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter on British soil.

EU diplomats pointed to their ability to assemble a coalition of the willing – which even includes the USA, Canada and Australia – just days after pronouncing solidarity with the United Kingdom at its recent EU summit. Italy and Hungary, too, generally known for opposition to stronger measures against Russia, have decided to get on board.

Austria and Greece, on the other hand, have refused to expel anyone. Both the right-wing government in Vienna and the left-wing government in Athens have greater economic interests in Russia, as well as closer ideological ties to President Vladimir Putin than most other EU governments.

By Tuesday afternoon, a number of other EU states jumped on board the moving train, announcing that they, too, would expel Russian diplomats. By now some 17 of the EU's 28 member states, including the UK, are on board.

Read also: UK-Russia relations: Crisis or melodrama?

Theresa May welcomes decision to expel Russian diplomats

EU candidate countries Macedonia and Albania are also part of the group. Ukraine has announced the expulsion of 14 diplomats; only the USA and UK will expel more. All of the EU's largest member states – including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland – are standing by the UK.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May proudly told the House of Commons that the EU was standing by her side in the decision, and indeed, the EU has displayed an unusual amount of solidarity on this foreign policy issue.

The United Kingdom, however, is not the only country affected by Russia's aggressive policies; a number of other EU member states have been targeted as well. The German government made a point of mentioning Russian cyberattacks on government servers as part of its own justification for expelling Russian diplomats.

The alliance acts, but not all members agree

Although the UK will leave the EU in one year's time, that has not kept parties from standing in solidarity in the area of foreign policy. The existing security partnership will remain intact, more so because participating states – with few exceptions – are also members of the NATO alliance. The transatlantic military alliance on Tuesday expelled seven members of the Moscow observer mission

"I have today withdrawn the accreditation of seven staff of the Russian mission to NATO. I will also deny the pending accreditation request for three others," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference in Brussels. "This will send a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for their unacceptable pattern of behavior."

Stoltenberg underlined that Russia had exhibited a pattern of disregarding the sovereignty of other nations, going back to the illegal annexation of Ukraine's region of the Crimea in 2014.

Read also: EU to recall ambassador to Moscow

What do the expulsions really mean?

Yet there is a lack of unanimity within NATO. Turkey, for instance, refused to undertake punitive measures against Russia. And Russia's NATO representative in Brussels will not be affected by the expulsions.

Russia has called the expulsions an act of "diplomatic war." But the EU and its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini view the situation in less drastic terms. Representatives say the expulsion of intelligence services agents at Russian embassies is at the very bottom of the escalation scale. One EU diplomat made assurances that no ambassadors would be expelled, nor would embassies be unable to perform their duties.

The same goes for anticipated Russian countermeasures. Although the expulsion of EU embassy and consulate personnel would be considered an act of diplomatic revenge, contacts between Russia and the EU would, nevertheless, remain in place and lines of communication open.

Mixed opinions on effectiveness

Michael Gahler, foreign policy expert from the Christian Democratic bloc of the European Parliament, welcomed the EU's concerted effort. The parliamentarian says he also supports further steps the EU has said it may take, such as issuing further economic sanctions. The EU previously imposed economic sanctions in reaction to Russia's annexation of Crimea as well as Moscow's role in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. 

"By applying sanctions, one makes clear that one is not paying back in kind. Our sanctions were an answer to military aggression against Ukraine. We did not respond likewise. We did not send tanks to Ukraine to confront Russia. We reacted in a civilized manner and we will continue to act in a civilized manner. I think we could do much more in the area of targeted personal sanctions," Gahler told the German radio station Deutschlandfunk. 

Read also: Opinion: Vladimir Putin's diplomatic catastrophe

Gahler suggested one could consider entry bans for wealthy Russians who like to spend time in Paris, London and Berlin but who cooperate with the Putin government at home in Russia: "We could apply a healthy amount of pressure on that front."

Jürgen Trittin, foreign policy expert for the Green Party in Germany's parliament, on the other hand, said that expelling diplomats was the wrong course of action. Trittin told DW: "Putin is just laughing. If you continue along this path you quickly arrive at Cold War 2.0, and I don't think that is very clever. A new cold war won't help in terms of everything we want from Russia and the behavioral changes we seek – whether in Syria, or the stationing of medium-range missiles – rather, it will likely do damage."

Just this month the EU extended existing sanctions against Russia for another six months. The decision required a unanimous vote. Yet EU diplomats will likely view the prospect of achieving similar consensus on new sanctions in response to the poisoning in Salisbury as a much more difficult task.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union