EU Blames Russia, Expulsions Now in Sight: EU Summit Update

(Bloomberg) -- European Union leaders sided with the U.K. and said it’s “highly likely” that Russia was behind the nerve agent poisoning in Britain of a former double agent.

It’s an outcome that will please Prime Minister Theresa May. The language of the bloc was toughened significantly: It could find “no other plausible explanation” for the attack and believes it’s “highly likely” Russia is to blame.

Some countries are considering expulsions of their own in coming weeks -- Lithuania has hinted as much. Germany’s Angela Merkel said “we are united in our language, but if necessary also to react together with further action.”

The first day of a two-day summit in Brussels however ended without a conclusion on tariffs -- with the EU left in limbo on whether Donald Trump had formally signed off on exemptions.

We followed developments as they unfolded. Time stamps are in Brussels time.

May Sticks Around Another Day to Discuss Trade (2:03 a.m.)

May was planning to fly back to the U.K. in the early hours of Friday but changed her plan after the intense dinner debate over the Salisbury attack overran, resulting in a tougher EU stance against Russia.

Merkel Says Waiting for U.S. Decision on Tariffs (1:47 a.m.)

They day began very promisingly with the EU believing it was on track to be exempted from imminent U.S. tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. That belief appeared confirmed in Washington -- except Europe is still waiting for the announcement. The news cycle quickly became dominated by the president’s decision to appoint a new national security adviser.

Merkel had this to say about it all: “We will have to wait overnight how exactly the decision of the U.S. government will look like.”

Will Some Countries Expel Russian Diplomats? (01:43 a.m.)

Finland’s Sipila told reporters that “a couple of countries spoke about their readiness” to follow up today’s statement with some expulsions. In the meantime, the EU ambassador to Moscow was recalled for consultations.

May ordered 23 Russian operatives -- who she said were undeclared spies -- to leave Britain in retaliation for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Russia responded by booting out 23 British diplomats.

A Bit of Brexit Talk Saved for the End (12:18 a.m.)

May got the chance to update fellow leaders on Brexit at the end of the meal. She hailed the progress negotiators made on reaching a transition deal, saying it took “compromise on both sides.”

She also acknowledged that fixing the vexed issue of the Irish border will now be a key priority as talks move on to discuss the future trade relationship. Britain has always argued that it’s impossible to resolve the question of what kind of border will exist on the island of Ireland until the trade and customs rules are clear. Now these rules can be discussed.

“We have the chance, now, to create a new dynamic in the talks, to work together to explore workable solutions -- in Northern Ireland, in our future security cooperation and in order to ensure the future prosperity of all our people,” May said, according to extracts released by her office. “This is an opportunity it’s our duty to take and to enter into with energy and ambition."

After dinner, she was due to be holding a brief meeting with Irish premier Leo Varadkar.

What the Leaders Ate While Discussing Russia (12:01 a.m.)

On the menu: pan-fried scallops with artichokes and seaweed coulis, rack of lamb with young veg, and iced lemon parfait.

It was during this meal that the language on Russia was sharpened. A German official said the while the tone was indeed tougher, there was still no consequences as such.

The final text of the conclusions says the bloc “agrees with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security.”

To see how much has changed, compare the before and after here.

EU Agrees ‘Highly Likely’ Russia to Blame (10:45 p.m.)

After almost two hours of talks, a tweet from Tusk signals the direction of travel: the EU has hardened it’s language and now see it as “highly likely Russia is responsible for #SalisburyAttack and that there is no other plausible explanation.”

It’s a shift from their earlier language, which was more cautious and spoke of “unqualified solidarity” and “takes extremely seriously the United Kingdom government’s assessment.” The 28 nations now agree with the U.K. Question is, what will they do about it?

Belgium Evasive on Possible Action on Russia (8:26 p.m.)

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was asked on next steps on Russia. Sanctions? Expulsions?

“It’s not my intention today to give an answer because I consider it is important to have a free and open exchange of views on this issue,” he said. “It is very sensitive because the stability is very important for the future. And it is very important to try to be able to show unity on this issue and we will see in a few hours if it’s possible to show this unity.”

Macron, May and Merkel Huddled and Agreed (8:21 p.m.)

The French tweeted out a photo of the three leaders -- May in the middle dressed in a blue suit with her signature leopard print heels. Though smiling the topic at hand was serious. There was an exchange of information about the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England that left a Russian double agent and his daughter were left in critical condition.

EU Blames Russia, Expulsions Now in Sight: EU Summit Update

Here is another picture of the three, sent by Merkel’s spokesman.

The three agreed that Russia was guilty of the poison attack and on the need to send Vladimir Putin a message, according to May’s office.

From a U.K. spokesman: “The U.K., Germany and France reaffirmed that there is no plausible explanation other than that the Russian state was responsible. The leaders agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions and agreed to remain in close contact in coming days.”

Slovak Prime Minister Makes His Debut (8:04 p.m.)

It’s literally his first day on the job. Peter Pellegrini began his stint as prime minister of Slovakia by attending an EU summit. At his news conference he was asked about Russia and his message seemed to be: no one should go rogue.

His full quote: “We fully agree with the draft of text which will be presented during the meeting later on. So we fully support this, but when we speak about some actions against Russia I will repeat once more, if there will be agreement of all member states then Slovakia will be part of it, but we don’t like to support any individual actions.”

A Reminder of Where Russia Stands on Allegations (7:48 p.m.)

Earlier in the day, Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko went on the attack. Here are some more excerpts of what he had to say. He picks up on remarks made by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson comparing Russia hosting the World Cup to the Nazi Olympics.

While some of it seemed like political theater, it speaks to level of tension between the two nations. Their relationship is at its worst since the end of the Cold War.

“The British government is free to make a decision about its participation in the World Cup," he said. “But nobody has the right to insult the Russian people - who defeated Nazism and lost most than 25 million people - by comparing our country to Nazi Germany.”

EU’s Tusk Is Not Impressed with Facebook (7:32 p.m.)

Tusk spelled out that “it was clear to all leaders that citizens’ privacy and personal data must be fully protected.” According to the summit’s three-page conclusion, the bloc will revisit the Facebook problem at a May summit in Sofia.

Read more about the EU’s reach in our BusinessWeek story earlier today.

Tusk, Juncker Won’t Be Drawn on Stance on Russia (7:20 p.m.)

EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker came to the podium and the first question they were asked about was what the EU planned to do on Russia. They both said they would answer that question later on, once a discussion was had.

Separately, at a news conference, Finland’s Sipila restated that “May did not present any exact demands at least at this phase. We showed our solidarity to the U.K., and this discussion will continue tonight.”

Here is Finland’s position, which is probably shared by others like Greece too:

  • The incident must be investigated until the very end and after that it is possible to move to the next phase
  • Not yet in a phase where one could talk about sanctions
  • Ultimately will Finland fall in line with the rest of the bloc? “Yes.”

The best comments on Russia from earlier are below for readers catching up.

Ireland Stands ‘Right Beside’ May on Russia (2:45 p.m.)

Some of the strongest language on Russia came from Ireland, who is in deep disagreement with the U.K. over Brexit, but stands by its neighbor when it comes to Russian aggression. To be sure, the wording is strong but May will be looking for some firmer commitments from her colleagues. At least Leo Varadkar didn’t dwell on needing to see more evidence.

Here was the Irish prime minister, one of the last to arrive: “I think what occurred in Salisbury was loathsome and reprehensible and we’re going to stand right beside the U.K. on that issue. An attempted assassination or a chemical attack -- no matter who does it, no matter where it happens -- is something we are going to condemn and condemn outright.”

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, when asked whether he believes the U.K.’s version of events seemed not to be so sure: “I’m a cautious person... When we know who did it then I’ll comment. Who would say for sure now?”

Russians on Offensive, Say May Can’t Be Trusted (2:09 p.m.)

In London, Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko told reporters “we cannot take British words for granted.” He cited conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia as further examples of Britain “taking international law for granted.”

In Brussels, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrived moments before May. After tweeting earlier that he had congratulated Vladimir Putin on his re-election, Tsipras was non-committal about where he stood on the poisoning incident: “we need to investigate Salisbury event with great responsibility.”

May reiterated that she would be talking to her counterparts about Russia’s “pattern of aggression” in the region, not just the isolated attack earlier this month.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite signaled that the EU is going to weigh its options. Asked by a reporter about the possibility the bloc will agree to booting out Russian officials from their own countries, Grybauskaite said “all of us, we are considering.”

Czechs Wavering Between Support and Caution (12:43 p.m.)

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was asked if he was sure the Russians were 100 percent involved. And here is how he responded: “Is there any evidence of this? I don’t know, of course we trust our allies.”

He went on to say: “If U.K. is sure then I am sure also. We will discuss it. This attack is a big problem but we hope that U.K. is really convinced that this is the case that Russia is behind it.”

Another Nation Strikes Cautious Note on Russia (12:22 p.m.)

On Russia, it’s clear May has her work cut out for her. Lots of solidarity that is falling short of commitments to action. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had this to say: “I want to listen, don’t ask me to say if there is evidence or not.”

Finns Need More Information from May on Russia (12:13 p.m.)

May needs to convince a few countries tonight about just how damning the evidence is against Russia and its alleged use of a nerve agent to poison a former spy outside London. Greece and Hungary are still skeptical, and it seems so is Finland.

EU Blames Russia, Expulsions Now in Sight: EU Summit Update

Speaking exclusively to Raine Tiessalo, Prime Minister Juha Sipila said that the “information we’ve got so far is not enough to make decisions, this kind of decisions need to be assessed through careful processes.”

Question: Have you received any formal request to expel Russian diplomats?
Answer: “If she has this kind of thoughts she will probably present them when we’ ll meet today.”

In fact, British officials say May will make a strong case at the dinner.

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