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7th Dec 2019

UK sanctions appeal risks highlighting EU divisions

  • EU has urged its companies to ignore the threat of US sanctions if they do business with Iran (Photo: European Commission)

The UK is to call for extra EU sanctions on Russia, in a move that risks highlighting both EU and transatlantic foreign policy divisions.

"Today the United Kingdom asks its allies to go further by calling on the European Union to ensure its sanctions against Russia are comprehensive, and that we truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the US," British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt aims to say in a speech in Washington on Tuesday (21 August), details of which were released to press ahead of his trip.

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  • Hunt took up his post in July after his predecessor, Boris Johnson, resigned in a Brexit dispute with the British prime minister (Photo: NHS Confederation)

"That means calling out and responding to transgressions with one voice whenever and wherever they occur, from the streets of Salisbury to the fate of Crimea," he plans to add, referring to Russia's use of a chemical weapon to try to kill a former spy in Salisbury, England, in March, and its invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

"Those who do not share our values need to know that there will always be a serious price to pay if red lines are crossed - whether territorial incursions, the use of banned weapons or, increasingly, cyber-attacks," he also aims to say, referring to Russian hacks and leaks, which were designed to sway elections in the US, France, and Germany in the past two years.

Russia is behaving in a "malign" way and is making the world "a more dangerous place", his speech notes, while the once "rock-solid" transatlantic alliance could be undermined if the EU does not act in concert with the US, it adds.

Hunt's intervention comes after the US curbed exports of high-tech products to Russia and expelled Russian diplomats over the Salisbury attack.

It is planning to further tighten economic cooperation if Moscow does not give assurances that it will not use chemical weapons again, despite warm personal relations between US leader Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Populist advent

For its part, the EU has imposed economic sanctions and blacklists on Russia over Ukraine. Most EU states also expelled Russian diplomats after the Salisbury incident.

But Hunt's appeal for EU solidarity risks falling on deaf ears as Britain prepares to leave the bloc next March amid increasingly acrimonious negotiations, weakening its voice in the European arena.

The EU recently rolled over its Ukraine-related Russia sanctions.

But the advent of populist, pro-Russian governments in Austria and Italy, as well as further afield in Europe, some of whom have called for existing sanctions to be lifted, makes it even less likely that Britain's appeal will galvanise an EU consensus to step up action.

Anti-US solidarity

At the same time, Hunt's reference to the "rock-solid" EU-US alliance glosses over Trump's discord with America's oldest allies.

His insults against German leader Angela Merkel aside, the US president has threatened to fine EU firms taking part in a Russian-German pipeline project and has imposed tariffs on EU exports of steel and aluminium.

That prompted Merkel and Putin to instead voice solidarity against US interference in Germany's energy policy and his assault on international trade norms in a meeting on Saturday.

Trump's decision to walk away from a nuclear arms control deal on Iran, backed by the EU and Russia, prompted further anti-US solidarity by Berlin and Moscow.

The EU has urged its companies to ignore the threat of US sanctions if they do business with Iran in line with the arms control agreement.

But French energy firm Total has dropped plans to invest in Iranian gas fields.

French and German carmakers PSA, Renault, and Daimler, as well as German train and telecoms firms Deutsche Bahn and Deutsche Telekom are also planning to walk away from investments under American duress.

Brexit risk

Hunt's US speech, which marks his international debut following his recent elevation to the post, is to reference the risk of a Brexit rift by urging the EU to give the UK what it wants in terms of special trade perks.

"The risk of a messy divorce, as opposed to the friendship we seek, would be a fissure in relations between European allies that would take a generation to heal," he aims to say.

Russian hackers and trolls stand accused of having helped the pro-Brexit camp in Britain's 2016 referendum, of having helped Trump to win the US elections later the same year, and of having given a boost to far-right parties in Europe.

But the British minister is preparing to blame economic inequalities for the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, minimising Moscow's role in the trend despite his sanctions appeal.

"We are putting our heads in the sand if we blame social media by pretending that some of the causes of that [anti-establishment] resentment are not real - whether caused by the decline in real incomes for many Americans and Europeans, dislocation caused by changes in technology or the identity concerns of many voters caused by immigration," he plans to say.

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