As reported by my colleague Adam Garrie, threats from Britain, France and Germany that the EU would impose more sanctions on Russia because of the conflict in Syria have come to nothing.
A meeting of the EU Council – the EU’s highest body, bringing together the leaders of the EU states – failed even to agree a final communique which threatened Russia with sanctions.
The sanctions that were under discussion would not have been sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, such as those which the EU imposed during the height of the Ukrainian conflict in July 2014. Rather they were sanctions that targeted specific Russian individuals and agencies involved in the fighting in Syria. Unofficial reports spoke of just 12 Russian individuals and agencies that might have been targeted in this way.
Moreover even before the EU Council meeting the proposal was watered down from a decision to impose sanctions on these 12 Russian individuals and agencies to a mere threat to do so.
In the event even that proved too much. The final communique which was published makes no mention of sanctions at all, whether against Russian officials or agencies, or even against Syrian officials and agencies (there had been talk that as many as 20 Syrian officials or agencies might be targeted). It only speaks of
“The EU…considering all available options, should the current atrocities continue.”
Reports of the EU Council speak of a tense meeting, with EU officials saying before the meeting that “a third of the EU’s states” were opposed to more sanctions being imposed on Russia.
In reality it seems that the opposition came not from “a third of the EU’s states” but from a majority of them led by Italy, Spain and Austria.
As to the three states that demanded the sanctions – France, Britain and Germany – France wants the sanctions because of the way it was humiliated by Russia in the UN Security Council, Britain is leaving the EU so its opinion no longer counts, and Germany is split, with Merkel pushing for sanctions and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier opposing them.
This is one of the very rare cases where the EU’s big two – Germany and France – have failed to get what they wanted. As always the EU Commission drafted a final communique that followed closely their wishes by threatening Russia with sanctions. However on this occasion a critical mass of EU states was so strongly opposed that the proposal was blocked.
It is a further sign of how Merkel’s judgement is slipping that the proposal of more sanctions was floated at all. I have previously written that the talk of more sanctions on Russia was a non-starter. I would have thought that was obvious, and it shows how out of touch with European opinion Merkel has become that she appears to have thought otherwise.
Southern Europe is becoming increasingly exasperated by the sanctions against Russia which are already in place. The idea of adding even more sanctions on top of the existing sanctions was therefore bound to meet strong resistance. That Merkel even contemplated the possibility shows the extent to which she has lost touch with opinion in southern Europe and within the EU generally.
It is not as if Merkel can even show any tangible success for the existing sanctions
A Normandy Four meeting involving Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande took in place in Berlin on Thursday 21st October 2016 to discuss Ukraine, and Putin also had a separate meeting with Merkel and Hollande in Berlin on the same day to discuss Syria.
As Merkel and Hollande were forced to admit when they attended the EU Council on the following day, they found Putin immoveable on both Ukraine and Syria. He flatly refused to shift on the Minsk II Agreement, or to change Russia’s policy in relation to Syria.
It makes no sense to demand more of what has already failed, yet at the EU Council that is precisely what Merkel did.
Beyond that there is the fact that public opinion across much of Europe – and not just southern Europe – strongly supports what Russia is doing in Syria, despite the media campaign against it.
In light of all this it is not surprising that when Merkel attended the EU Council she found the opposition to her demand for further sanctions insurmountable.
The biggest blow to Merkel would have been the opposition to the demand for more sanctions coming from Spain. The Spanish co-sponsored the French Resolution the Russians recently vetoed in the UN Security Council. That might have caused Merkel and Hollande to think they would support the demand for more sanctions.
In the event the Spanish opposed them, showing how strong feeling on the sanctions issue in southern Europe – including in Spain – has become, and how token Spain’s support for the French Resolution really was.
This episode has ended in an important diplomatic victory for Russia, which now knows how divided on the questions of Syria, sanctions and relations with Russia, the EU states actually are.
The big loser is Merkel, whose authority in the European Council on the issue of relations with Russia has for the first time been challenged successfully.
As for the Russians, what will make this victory especially sweet is that they had to do nothing to achieve it. Instead Merkel – together with Theresa May and Hollande – just gifted it to them.