Europe on the Fence
As relations between Britain and Russia reach the lowest point since the Cold War, the European Union stands to one side, unwilling to get involved in what could turn out to be one of the most serious diplomatic spats between east and west in over a decade.
Britain expelled four Russian diplomats on Monday after Russia refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in the murder of Kremlin critic and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive material in London last November.
Shortly after the expulsion, British diplomats turned to the EU for support -- and came up against a wall of indifference in most cases.
The British Foreign Office had looked towards the Portuguese EU presidency for a statement of support on Monday but by Wednesday there had still not been an adequate response. By Wednesday evening, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates had still not been able to extract enough support for the British stance from other EU leaders.
Eventual EU statement lacks weight
A statement eventually materialized Thursday, but Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado's assertion that the diplomatic row was "disappointing" and "a bilateral issue" between Britain and Russia hardly threw the bloc's weight behind the Brits.
The statement by the Portuguese did however say the issue "raises important questions of common interest to EU member states," adding that Litvinenko's murder was "a grave and reckless crime."
Surprisingly, given their level of animosity over issues both serious and trivial throughout history, the French were the most vocal when it came to supporting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's decision to throw the Russians out.
"The murder of a British national on his home soil, using a substance that put at risk the lives of thousands of others is a particularly serious matter," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "Given the gravity of the matter, we stand alongside the United Kingdom in its concern that justice be done.
"We call on Moscow to respond to the demands of British justice in a constructive manner ... so that the perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice and punished," he added.
Russia promptly responded on Thursday by expelling four British diplomats from Moscow, in what Alexander Grushkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said was a "targeted and appropriate" response.
"Britain appeals for EU solidarity," Grushkov said in his statement. "We hope that common sense will prevail within the EU and that its members will not give in to attempts to turn relations between Russia and the EU into a tool to achieve unilateral political goals. These have nothing in common with EU and Russia's real partnership interests."
Germany says Britain "overreacted"
Germany was one of the many other EU nations which viewed the situation from a distance. Despite Prime Minister Brown's visit in person to Berlin to press Chancellor Angela Merkel for her support, Germany remained firmly on the fence but did say that it thought Britain had "overreacted" by expelling the four Russian diplomats and freezing bilateral negotiations on visas.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will meet in Berlin on Friday to discuss the diplomatic row. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said the meeting would involve "brief but intensive talks".
Steinmeier on Wednesday had expressed his hope that the row would not be allowed to escalate into "a crisis."
In terms of relations with Russia, Germany is the main player in the European Union and therefore has the most to lose from coming down on the side of the Brits.
Russia considers Germany to be its most important economic partner in the EU and the statistics on trade between the two nations confirms this view. Trade between the two countries increased by almost 40 percent in 2006 while German exports to Russia went up by 35 percent.
Germany and Russia are also driving Europe's energy agenda and if the bloc is to secure its supply from the east, then relations between the two sides have to be good.
Russia warns EU to stay out of row
Russia for its part has warned the EU to stay out of the row and Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's EU representative in Brussels called the EU Presidency's lukewarm statement on Wednesday "an unpleasant surprise for us."
Despite the lack of any real commitment on Europe's part, Chizhov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency that the EU statement would "affect relations between the EU and Russia."
While disappointed by Europe's relatively non-committal stance in the row, British Foreign Minister David Miliband is unlikely to give up trying to garner support.
He is expected to lobby his EU counterparts at the next EU foreign minister meeting in Brussels on Monday but observers believe that unless Russia reacts again, and more strongly this time, the EU will continue to sit out the row on the sidelines.