Authors: Heather Stewart, Jennifer Rankin and Daniel Boffey, in Brussels
Posted on: The Guardian | March 23rd, 2018
Member states poised to expel diplomats as European Union leaders agree that Moscow is likely source of Salisbury attack
The European Union has recalled its ambassador from Moscow after leaders on the continent threw their weight behind Theresa May’s stance over the Salisbury attack. Several EU member states were poised to announce expulsions of diplomats, in a bid to dismantle Vladimir Putin’s spy network.
Following a summit in Brussels to discuss the response to the Salisbury nerve agent attack, EU leaders gave their full-throated backing to the prime minister by adopting a statement declaring it was “highly likely Russia is responsible” for poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, tweeted that all leaders agreed Russia’s responsibility for the attack was highly likely.
In a significant point for May, the statement goes further than a declaration by foreign ministers earlier this week, which avoided pinning the blame on Russia. British diplomats believe that a strong message of solidarity with the UK, from Russia’s closest European neighbours, will hit home with President Putin.
France, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are understood to be considering expelling Russian diplomats, as requested by the UK government, in a coordinated strike against Moscow.
The Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, said: “All of us, we are considering such measures.” She added that she had not congratulated Putin on his election victory.
On Thursday night the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said the EU ambassador to Russia was being recalled to consult with Brussels over the Salisbury attack. Rutte said characterised this as a “measure” rather than a formal “sanction” against Moscow.
EU leaders discussed their response to the Salisbury poisoning over a European council summit dinner in Brussels. The UK prime minister told her fellow leaders the attack formed part of a long-term pattern of behaviour by Russia, and urged them to present a united front.
May said: “The challenge of Russia is one that will endure for years to come. As a European democracy, the UK will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and Nato to face these threats together. United, we will succeed.”
The statement issued by the council after the summit said: “The European council condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent attack in Salisbury, expresses its deepest sympathies to all whose lives have been threatened and lends its support to the ongoing investigation.
“We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security.”
Before the dinner, May met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who have been robust in echoing Britain’s position.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The UK, Germany and France reaffirmed that there is no plausible explanation other than that the Russian state was responsible. The leaders agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions and agreed to remain in close contact in coming days.”
Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the attack. In the run-up to Thursday’s summit, British officials shared intelligence with their EU counterparts in an attempt to win them over to the prime minister’s view that the Russian state was responsible.
Earlier, not all EU leaders had appeared convinced of Russia’s involvement, however. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, took a cautious line before talks with May.
“We have to express our solidarity to the UK, to the British people, but at the same time we need to investigate,” Tsipras said. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, a former criminal lawyer, said he wanted to hear what May had to say before making a decision.
May is keen to demonstrate that the UK will continue to cooperate closely on security matters with the EU even after Brexit, and warned her fellow EU leaders that she now believed Russia to present a long-term strategic threat.
Before the dinner, neither the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, nor Tusk was willing to echo the British prime minister’s claim that Russia was now a strategic enemy.
The two EU leaders both insisted during a press conference on Thursday that they would only respond later.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, appeared to call for the World Cup to be taken away from Russia. He said: “In Russia everything’s used for politics and to make Russia proud at being capital of this world religion football, I don’t believe it’s very productive frankly.”
Whitehall officials have said that Russia “has shown itself to be a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner”, pointing to a pattern of behaviour including cyber-attacks on countries including Germany, the US and Denmark and aggression in Syria and Ukraine.
Earlier, at a press conference in London on Thursday, Russia’s ambassador to the UK described Boris Johnson’s remarks comparing the World Cup in Russia to the 1936 Olympics as “unacceptable and totally irresponsible”.
Alexander Yakovenko complained that Britain had refused to cooperate with Moscow over the investigation into the Salisbury poisoning, saying: “We have seen no evidence.”