May seeks EU backing against Russia on spy attack
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday sought to unite EU leaders in condemnation of Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian spy, but she faces resistance from states keen to protect their Kremlin ties.
May will brief her colleagues at a Brussels summit on the progress of the investigation into the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury using a deadly Soviet-developed nerve agent.
While the US, France and Germany have swung behind London, saying they accept the UK assessment that the Russian state is the only plausible culprit, other EU countries with close links to Moscow — notably Greece and Italy — want a softer line.
May will remind her fellow 27 leaders the threat from the east will continue long after Britain leaves the bloc next year.
“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 with NATO to face these threats together. United we will succeed,” she is expected to tell them.
EU President Donald Tusk said on the eve of the summit that leaders will show “solidarity” with Britain after Salisbury and called the bloc to take practical steps to “reinforce our preparedness for future attacks”.
‘Consequences’ for Russia
The poisoning has triggered a furious diplomatic row between London and Moscow, with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats on both sides, while the Kremlin denies any responsibility and Russian state media have offered numerous alternative explanations.
There was renewed backing for Britain from the US as President Donald Trump pledged during a phone call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday that he would “take action to hold Russia accountable” for the poisoning, without giving further details.
EU leaders will issue a statement on the Salisbury attack on Thursday, with a draft seen by AFP saying they will “coordinate on the consequences” for Russia but stopping short of blaming Moscow or mentioning sanctions.
Some countries are pushing to toughen up the statement to bring it in line with last week’s joint declaration by Britain, France Germany and the US pointing the finger at Russia.
“There is no plausible alternative explanation,” one EU diplomat said.
But a dissenting rump including Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Austria, keen to preserve their good relations with Moscow, has insisted on the watered-down version, which says only that the EU takes “extremely seriously” London’s view Moscow was to blame.
The Salisbury incident comes with worries running high across Europe about Russian meddling — from repeated cyber attacks, particularly in the Baltics, to what the EU has called an “orchestrated strategy” of disinformation aimed at destabilising the bloc.
The war of words took a fresh turn Thursday as the Kremlin slammed as “disgusting” comments by British foreign minister Boris Johnson about President Vladimir Putin seeking to exploit Russia’s football World Cup in the way Adolf Hitler had used the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Trade, Facebook talks
British officials are understood to have been pressing European allies to follow London’s lead with their own expulsions of Russian diplomats, though London is not yet seeking fresh EU-wide sanctions.
Further exposing EU divisions, Tusk said Wednesday he was “not in the mood to celebrate President Putin’s reappointment”, a day after European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker sent the Russian strongman a congratulatory letter.
Aside from Salisbury, the two-day summit will also address the trade spat with the US after Trump announced steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
The bloc’s top trade official Cecilia Malmstroem told European lawmakers she expects Trump to announce a last-minute exemption for the EU later on Thursday.
The leaders will also discuss a scandal over harvested data from Facebook used by a British consulting firm employed by Trump’s 2016 campaign team. Tusk said this was “particularly relevant” in the light of broader threats such as election meddling.
May will depart the summit on Thursday evening, leaving the remaining 27 on Friday to approve a post-Brexit transition period and adopt guidelines for talks on future relations including a trade deal.
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