26th Oct 2016

EU foreign policy faces test after MH17 shootdown

EU foreign policy is facing a major test today as ministers gather in Brussels to consider their response to the suspected downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight by Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The plane was shot down last Thursday killing all 298 on board. As evidence mounted that a Russian-supplied missile was used and as rebels delayed access to the crash site and to the black boxes, attitudes to Moscow hardened.

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  • The EU discussion is expected to centre on how close the sanctions should get to Putin himself and his inner circle (Photo: World Economic Forum)

The UK and the Netherlands - the vast majority of the victims were Dutch - led the response for harder sanctions.

British leader David Cameron Monday said the EU would blacklist the "cronies and oligarchs" around Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of "a new range of hard-hitting economic sanctions" while Mark Rutte, Dutch PM, said "all measures" were on the table if access to the bodies was not allowed.

But as EU ministers head to their Brussels meeting, the rebels may have done enough to ensure that Russia is not hit with wide-ranging sanctions - they handed over two black boxes and allowed Dutch investigators on to the site of the crash.

EU states are expected to speed up sanctions against individuals and possibly companies - something that was agreed in principle by EU leaders at a summit on 17 July, before the downing of the plane.

The discussion is expected to centre on how close the sanctions should get to Putin himself and his inner circle.

While London has indicated it wants to impose tougher punishment, other states, such as France, Germany and Italy, are more reluctant.

Heading into the Brussels meeting, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "We are available for de-escalation, but we also need to increase pressure and adopt supplementary measures."

Illustrating the depth of the ambivalence of the EU towards Russia, French President Francois Hollande on Monday said a highly controversial decision to deliver a Mistral warship to Russia in October will go ahead while the delivery of a second one will depend on Moscow's attitude to Ukraine.

"For the time being, a level of sanctions has not been decided on that would prevent this delivery," Hollande said, according to Reuters news agency.

"Does that mean that the rest of the contract - the second Mistral - can be carried through? That depends on Russia's attitude," he added.

The US in particular has been pushing the EU to make Russia suffer tough consequences.

Germany's Der Spiegel notes that EU member state ambassadors in Washington, who normally struggle to get the attention of the US government, are now subject to continuous phonecalls and requests for information.

The US, which has already gone further than the EU in its sanctions against Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and destabilising of eastern Ukraine, called the downing of MH17 a "wake-up call" for Europe.

Meanwhile, Lithuania, one of the hardliners when it comes to Russia, said the EU’s weak response on Russia is exacerbating the problem.

Foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said the shooting down of the plane was a “terrorist act” and the rebels should be labelled as terrorists.

“By our weak position, we are becoming part of the problem, not of the solution,” he added.

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