BRUSSELS – European Union leaders have backed the UK government's assessment that it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury that left a Russian double agent and his daughter both in a critical condition.
The president of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted Thursday night after a discussion over dinner with EU leaders in Brussels that "there is no other plausible explanation."
It is a major diplomatic win for May.
The prime minister told EU leaders over dinner that the attack on Sergei Skripal on 4 March was “an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom” amounting to “attempted murder using an illegal chemical weapon that we know Russia possesses”.
She warned that Russia was a threat to the EU that will last for “years to come”.
Going into Thursday's summit it was far from certain whether May would be able to convince the EU's other leaders to directly attribute the attack on Russia.
BuzzFeed News understands that strong backing from Tusk, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron were crucial in swaying the more cautious voices in the room.
Earlier in the day, the UK prime minister had a trilateral meeting with Macron and Merkel. May provided the two leaders with a detailed update on the investigation, a Number 10 spokesman said.
“She said there had been a positive identification of the chemical used as part of the Novichok group of nerve agents by our world leading scientists at Porton Down.
The Prime Minister also outlined our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations."
British authorities' sharing of intelligence about the Salisbury attack with at least some of the UK’s closest allies was decisive in convincing the bloc to line up behind the UK's assessment that Russia was culpable, officials from multiple governments said.
EU leaders also agreed to recall the EU’s ambassador to Moscow for consultations, and a number of countries, including France, Germany, Poland and Lithuania, are prepared to match the UK in expelling Russian diplomats.
At a joint press conference with Merkel after the summit on Friday, Macron told reporters that France and Germany would announce coordinated measures shortly. The French president described the use of a nerve agent in Salisbury as an attack on the sovereignty of the European Union.
Meanwhile, Tusk indicated that action would be taken as early as next Monday.
The 28 leaders condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms” and to stand “in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom.”
The language adopted on Thursday night is tougher than what was agreed by the EU’s foreign ministers on Monday.
On that occasion, the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, blocked attempts to beef up the text, an EU diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
The same official also noted that Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, whose appointment was championed by the far-right FPO party, also questioned whether attribution had been clearly established. The FPO has a partnership agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
The European diplomat and a second source separately described Kotzias as an “interesting” character. According to a report in the Financial Times, the Germany-educated minister once co-authored a propaganda book with an agent of the Stasi, the intelligence agency in former East Germany.
Greek diplomats have denied that they blocked attempts to strengthen the language adopted.
The EU’s leaders also called on the bloc to strengthen its resilience to attacks. The summit's conclusions state:
The European Council condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent attack in Salisbury, expresses its deepest sympathies to all whose lives have been threatened and lends its support to the ongoing investigation. It 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.The use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons under any circumstances, is completely unacceptable, must be systematically and rigorously condemned and constitutes a security threat to us all. Member States will coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities. The European Union will remain closely focused on this issue and its implications.
Against this background, the European Union must strengthen its resilience to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear-related risks, including through closer cooperation between the European Union and its Member States as well as NATO. The European Union and its Member States should also continue to bolster their capabilities to address hybrid threats, including in the areas of cyber, strategic communication and counter-intelligence. The European Council invites the European Commission and the High Representative to take this work forward and report on progress by the June European Council.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.