The European Union offered Britain “solidarity” after London accused Russia of a nerve-agent attack on British soil, but held off any threat of new sanctions as Prime Minister Theresa May considers her own response.
Coming a year before Britain quits the EU, and after four years of fractious internal debates in Brussels on existing penalties against Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, the case poses a test for pledges of post-Brexit security co-operation.
Asked whether the EU might be ready to impose sanctions on Russia if, as May alleged on Monday, it agreed that it was “highly likely” that Moscow was behind the attack on a former Russian double agent, a senior member of the executive European Commission told reporters that London could count on Brussels.
Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition following the March 4 attack. They were found collapsed on a public bench in Salisbury. Skripal lived in the town, 140 kilometres southwest of London.
On Monday, May said British officials had identified the substance as being part of the Novichok group of nerve agents, which were developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s.
She told the British House of Commons that if Moscow cannot deliver a “credible response” to events in Salisbury, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russia state against the United Kingdom,” leading to speculation the U.K. could soon expel senior Russian diplomats.
“We are very much concerned with the situation, also the findings the U.K. has so far,” Valdis Dombrovskis, commission vice-president overseeing the euro, said Monday. “Of course the U.K. can count on EU solidarity in this regard.”
A former prime minister of ex-Soviet Latvia, Dombrovskis did not elaborate.
Two senior EU diplomats told Reuters that Brussels would wait until Britain itself has taken a view on how to respond before making any policy moves of its own. EU foreign ministers are due to debate Russia policy on Monday.
“Provided the U.K. government is able to provide more specific information, then we can decide what steps to take,” one said.
The EU’s foreign affairs service has yet to respond to requests for comment, although an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there should be a joint Western response if Russia fails to co-operate with the British inquiry.
France’s member of the EU executive, Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, was cautious in his response when asked about the possibility of new sanctions. “Of course we pay a lot of attention to that,” he said of the British inquiry.
‘We stand with you’
Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament on Monday that the EU stood by Britain. He tweeted: “I want to express my strong feelings of solidarity with the British people and the British government. We stand with you.”
Britain itself has yet to make clear its response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal 10 days ago, but May has given Russian President Vladimir Putin until the end of Tuesday to explain how the Soviet-developed toxin was used in Salisbury.
Speaking for the NATO military alliance, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable.”
A spokesperson for U.S. President Donald Trump refused to blame Russia for an attack on what she called Washington’s “closest ally,” but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was confident in May’s assessment of Moscow’s role, and promised there should be “serious consequences.”
‘It came from Russia,’ Tillerson says
Tillerson said while he didn’t yet know whether Russia’s government knew of the nerve agent that was used, one way or another, “it came from Russia.”
Debate in Europe and across the Atlantic has focused attention on Britain’s future ability to call on allies for support as it cuts ties with the European Union while remaining in NATO.
However, many EU leaders who lament the departure of one of the bloc’s biggest economies and military powers have pledged repeatedly not to let differences damage security co-operation.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, a fierce critic of Britain’s decision to leave, tweeted: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the British people.
“It must be made clear that an attack against one EU and NATO country is an attack on all of us.”
The 28 EU member states have been united on renewing sanctions every six months against Moscow since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, some members have grumbled about sanctions getting in the way of warmer relations with Russia. Notable among these have been Italy, Hungary and Greece.
One set of sanctions was renewed on Monday.
Britain would be free to impose some new sanctions, for example, denying entry to Russian individuals, but would be limited in its ability to, say, bar more Russian imports as EU trade policy is centralized in Brussels and will remain so, probably, for a couple years after Brexit in March 2019.