EU foreign ministers tackled tougher Ukraine crisis sanctions against Russia Tuesday, divided as to how far to go and with British-led calls for an arms embargo putting France on the spot.
The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 last week, allegedly by pro-Moscow rebels using Russian equipment, has changed the situation completely requiring a much tougher response, said Britain’s Philip Hammond.
The tragedy "happened in the first place because of Russian support for the rebels … and (now) we have to go further," Hammond said as he arrived for a regular EU foreign ministers meeting which opened with a minute’s silence for the nearly 300 victims on MH17.
An arms embargo "is one of the things that we will have to look at," he said, adding that the EU had to send "a very clear message" to Moscow.
"It is time for an arms embargo, time to wake up a bit," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said, adding: "We are talking about a terrorist act."
– France’s Mistral sale to Russia –
Paris is acutely sensitive about the issue because it has a deal worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) to supply Russia with two Mistral warships.
French President Francois Hollande on Monday said the agreement was still in place but added that delivery of the second Mistral ship would "depend on Russia’s attitude".
Paris is also resentful that the British government is willing to tell it what to do but has taken no steps itself to prevent Russian companies, for example, from raising finance in London.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made no comment when he arrived for Tuesday’s talks, instead calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, another major issue for the foreign ministers.
"Time to stop the ‘Mistralisation’ of European politics. Europe must dare to stand up united against terrorism," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a typically blunt tweeted message as the foreign ministers sat down.
"To deliver arms to Russia is a position difficult to defend," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt commented.
While ministers may call for Phase 3 sanctions, which would include an arms embargo, the decision rests with the 28 EU leaders who would have to organise another summit.
– Preparing Tier 3 sanctions –
A summit of the leaders last Wednesday had recommended that the 28-member bloc only extend its "Phase 2" sanctions, which freeze assets and issue visa bans, to include companies in addition to Russian and Ukrainian figures, with a new list of targets to be ready by the end of the month.
Russia, they said, had failed to meet their demands to reverse course in Ukraine and cut off the flow of fighters and supplies, including of sophisticated heavy weapons, to the rebels.
But Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been pushing for much tougher action, said Monday that after MH17 it was time for "Phase 3" measures, which target economic sectors and cause much more pain for all sides.
"We cannot go on doing business as usual with a country when it’s behaving in this way," Cameron said in a statement to parliament.
"I think it is time to start to go into the tier three sanctions, so for instance future military sales I don’t think should be going ahead from any country in Europe," he said, citing specifically the French Mistral contract.
Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said he thought it unlikely they would recommend a move to Phase 3 but would discuss other steps.
Germany, often criticised for being slow to act because of its massive economic ties with Russia, conceded that something more had to be done in light of the MH17 downing.
"We remain ready to help with political and diplomatic means to help to de-escalate the situation," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
But at the same time "it will be necessary to complement that with more pressure, that means to take sharper actions," Steinmeier added.