Open Europe Blog

(l-r) The foreign ministers of Italy, Spain and France

EU foreign ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss what to do with Russia in light of last week’s MH17 plane crash, where almost 300 people lost their lives. The option of moving to tougher ‘Stage 3’ economic sanctions will be on the table. While the UK, France and Germany have all warned Moscow that it will face further sanctions if it fails to secure the crash site and guarantee a thorough and independent investigation, all eyes are on Italy and Spain – usually among the most dovish member states when it comes to EU-Russia relations.

After a couple of cautious statements over the weekend, a spokesman for the Italian Foreign Ministry is today quoted as saying,

“If Russia doesn’t cooperate with the investigation [into the crash], we are very much ready to support the sanctions.”

Belated compared to other big EU countries, but this is the most strongly worded statement coming from Rome to date. One could expect Italy to take a tougher stance this time around, not least because the main objection raised by Eastern European member states to the appointment of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as the new EU foreign policy chief is precisely the fact that Italy is regarded as too soft on Russia.

Meanwhile, speaking to the press this morning, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo took a milder position. He refused to condemn Russia for the crash, and suggested waiting for the outcome of the investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) before considering any further steps.

On top of this, despite presenting a united front, Germany, France and the UK might not yet be on exactly the same page – not least because France continues to look unwilling to put its sale of Mistral ships to Russia on the table, and Germany’s prime concern seems to be to preserve cohesion within the EU, rather than driving tougher sanctions. The big EU member states are therefore still not all on the same wavelength – although the fact that Italy might be hardening its stance is an interesting development.

Once again then, it is far from granted that EU foreign ministers will be able to agree on tougher sanctions on Russia tomorrow. However, it is looking the most likely it has been for some time.

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