British Prime Minister Theresa May will on Thursday seek 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”.
“We need to increase our resilience to hybrid threats, such as undermining trust in our democracies through fake news or election meddling,” the former Polish premier added.
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 for what happened.
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. It’s not a matter of getting more evidence, but of showing support for this conclusion,” 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.
Britain is understood to be seeking unified backing from the EU at this stage rather than fresh sanctions on Russia – and in any case, it would take time for EU officials to prepare new measures.
It is understood that British officials have also been pressing European allies to follow London’s lead with their own expulsions of Russian diplomats.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker caused fury among British MEPs this week for what they called the “nauseating” letter he sent to Putin congratulating him on his re-election.
Tusk, who often takes a tough line on Russia, said Wednesday he said that he was “not in the mood to celebrate president Putin’s reappointment”.
Aside from Salisbury, the two-day summit will also address the trade spat with the US after President Donald Trump announced steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
The EU is lobbying Washington for an exemption but has lined up retaliatory measures, triggering fears of an all-out transatlantic trade war.
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.