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Skripal case: EU Council ditches Theresa May’s ultimatum to Russia

EU Council statement retreats from “culpable” to “highly likely”, and refers to “ongoing investigation” of Skripal case

In my previous article about the failure of Britain’s allies to give Britain the strong support it expected in the Skripal case I predicted that the EU Council meeting on 22nd March 2018 would publish a statement which appeared to be strongly supportive of Britain but which on careful examination would turn out to be less than it seemed.

So it has been proved, as shown by the statement the EU Council did put out, which has now published on the Europa website

  1. 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. It agrees with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security.

  2. The use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons under any circumstances, is completely unacceptable, must be systematically and rigorously condemned and constitutes a security threat to us all. Member States will coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities. The European Union will remain closely focused on this issue and its implications.

  3. Against this background, the European Union must strengthen its resilience to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear-related risks, including through closer cooperation between the European Union and its Member States as well as NATO. The European Union and its Member States should also continue to bolster their capabilities to address hybrid threats, including in the areas of cyber, strategic communication and counter-intelligence. The European Council invites the European Commission and the High Representative to take this work forward and report on progress by the June European Council.

(bold italics added)

One of the great problems any person trying to make sense of the current state of international relations immediately encounters is that any news concerning Russia is immediately subjected to a vast volume of negative noise.

This is the case with this EU Council statement, which the British media – predictably enough – is presenting as a “victory” for Theresa May.

This article in The Times of London serves as a good example.

Note for example how this article misrepresents a telephone conversation on 22nd March 2018 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as a Russian “diplomatic rearguard action to avoid further punitive measures”.

In fact, as the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation shows, it was Tsipras who called Putin, doing so – as Trump and Macron have previously done, and as the Finnish and Croatian Presidents also did on the same day – in order to congratulate Putin on his re-election.

In reality what the EU Council statement does is take the position back to what it was in Theresa May’s statement to the British House of Commons on 12th March 2018 ie. before the British ultimatum, which has been effectively annulled.

In her statement of 12th March 2018 Theresa May used the following words

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mr. Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country.

Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

The words “highly likely” and “plausible explanation” in the EU Council statement are obviously taken from Theresa May’s 12th March 2018 statement.

However on 14th March 2018 – following expiry of her ultimatum – Theresa May in a second statement to the British House of Commons said the following

Mr Speaker, there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.

This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.

What was only “highly likely” on 12th March 2018 had on 14th March 2018 become fact, so that based on Russia’s supposed failure to answer Britain’s questions by the deadline Theresa May set in her ultimatum of 12th March 2018 there was “no alternative conclusion” than that Russia “was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter” and had committed “an unlawful use of force….against the United Kingdom”.

This definite conclusion of Russian culpability in Theresa May’s 14th March 2018 statement has now been set aside.

We are now once again back in the EU Council statement – which note Theresa May has signed – to the position of Russian responsibility being no more than “highly likely” as it was in Theresa May’s statement of 12th March 2018.

Needless to say the words “highly likely” leave open the possibility that the murder attempt on Skripal was the work of someone else other than Russia.  Theresa May after all admitted as much in her statement of 12th March 2018 when she said she would only conclude the Russians were guilty if they failed within the deadline set by her ultimatum to answer her questions.

Even the words “no plausible alternative explanation” – also clearly borrowed from Theresa May’s 12th March 2018 – are qualified words.  They leave open the possibility of other “alternative explanations” which may for the moment appear “implausible” but which could turn out to be true.

Needless to say the words “highly likely” – which imply no more than suspicion – come nowhere close to meeting the test applied by British courts to determine guilt or innocence in criminal cases, which is “beyond reasonable doubt”.

As a matter of fact the EU Council statement pointedly refers to an “ongoing investigation” – something which implicitly admits that questions of guilt or innocence in the case have still not been decided – and over the course of which the Russians are expected to answer questions (“the answers provided by the Russian authorities”).

Of course the fact that the Russian authorities are once again being asked to provide answers to questions – without moreover any deadline being set for their answers – further confirms that Theresa May’s ultimatum of 12th March 2018 – which demanded Russia’s answers by midnight on 13th March 2018 – has been set aside.

Unsurprisingly, since the question of Russian involvement in the Skripal attack has now once again been downgraded from certainty to mere suspicion, the “unlawful use of force” in Theresa May’s statement of 14th March 2018 has also been downgraded to a “grave challenge”.

Needless to say, the EU Council statement also says that the EU gives Britain its “unqualified solidarity”, and in a joint press conference Merkel and Macron have said that they treat the British claim that the nerve agent which was used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal is a Novichok to be as “well founded”.

However Merkel and Macron also spoke of the investigation being still ongoing, whilst the “unqualified solidarity” the EU is giving is with Theresa May’s position of 12th March 2018, not with her position of 14th March 2018.

The EU Council statement is in fact a typical product of compromise.

Media reports suggest that the original draft was – no doubt intentionally – much weaker.

That allowed scope for negotiations with the British over the wording of the draft in which the British were forced to respond to the objections of counties like Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece, which have all made their doubts about the British rush to judgement perfectly clear.

That set the scene for Merkel to do what she always does in these situations, which is broker an apparent compromise, which is in reality the position she has had all along.

In this case that is to put the position back to where it was in Theresa May’s statement of 12th March 2018, minus Theresa May’s ultimatum of that date, which has now been cancelled.

Meanwhile the prospect of further significant EU action against Russia has been kicked into the long grass, with any further action being apparently postponed until the conclusion of the investigation, which the British police are saying may be months away.

By that time of course Brexit will be even closer, and Britain’s diplomatic traction within the EU will be even weaker than it is now.

Of course if the investigation has not been concluded before Brexit takes place – which as of the time of writing is starting to look increasingly likely – then British diplomatic traction within the EU by the time the investigation is finally concluded will be weaker still.

In the meantime the only thing the EU for the moment is collectively prepared to do is make the token gesture of withdrawing the EU’s ambassador from Moscow for four days for consultations.

Some EU member states are supposedly considering expelling Russian diplomats.  Should that happen then the Russians will of course respond in kind.

However significant further sanctions against Russia are according to one of the EU’s Commissioners apparently being ruled out.

As the US recently concluded, further sanctions against Russia would be ineffective and counter-productive anyway.

Whilst the Skripal affair is not over, I suspect that the peak of the international aspect of this “crisis” is now passing.

If one compares what the British appeared to be threatening at the start of the crisis two weeks ago with what has actually happened, it is questionable whether there has even been a “crisis” at all.

No major Western state apart from Britain has cut off high level contacts with Russia.  No sanctions of any sort have been imposed.

Proposals to break off diplomatic relations with Russia, cut Russian banks off from SWIFT, launch cyber attacks against Russia, declare Russia a terrorist state, ban Russians from buying property in London, and for a boycott of the 2018 World Cup, appear to have been abandoned

If the British plan was to get NATO support by invoking Article 5 – as I strongly suspect – then that plan has failed.

Even talk of cancelling RT’s broadcasting licence in Britain seems to be abating.

There have been reciprocal expulsions of diplomats from London and Moscow.  As I have said previously that will hurt the British more than it will hurt the Russians.  If more tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian diplomats involving other European countries happen, that will hurt the Russians more.  However it will hardly help those countries either.

In fact the only significant step any party has so far taken during this “crisis” which will cause any other party actual injury is the Russian decision to close down the British Council in Russia.

Whilst that is hardly a major blow, for a country like Britain which relies so heavily on soft power it is a blow nonetheless.

The crisis may have damaged further Russia’s already terrible image in Britain and – though I suspect to a much lesser degree – in northern Europe (in the US this crisis appears to have barely registered, whilst perception of Russia – and of the Skripal crisis – is completely different in southern Europe).

However my impression is that the British reaction to the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal was so over the top, and so obviously violated due process, that in the long run it will be Britain whose image will have been damaged across Europe more than Russia’s.

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s recently retired former Foreign Minister, has recently described the Skripal affair as a “bad James Bond film” and that I suspect is what many Europeans – including many European governments – privately think.

Even in Britain I am starting to sense that a reaction is starting to set in, with even some of Theresa May’s new found fans noticing that the hysteria over the Skripal case has coincided with a further cave-in by Theresa May in the Brexit talks, and some of her fans perhaps even noticing that the actual position of Britain’s Western allies in the Skripal case is essentially the same as the much despised position taken by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom some sections of the British media have come close to branding a traitor.

As for the Skripal case itself, the prospect of an impartial inquiry has been almost certainly fatally compromised by Theresa May’s disastrous decision to pre-empt the investigation’s findings by making a declaration of Russia’s guilt just days after the investigation had begun and whilst it was still underway.

Inevitably that is going to put enormous pressure on the investigators to support her conclusions, making it less likely that important clues will be followed up.

I no longer expect ever to learn the truth about this affair

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