After Malaysian Airlines MH17’s passenger jet crashed last Thursday, allegedly hit by a Russian-supplied missile fired by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, EU foreign ministers convened today in Brussels to discuss the imposition of further sanctions on Russia. The response of the Netherlands, which lost 193 people in the incident, is expected to be crucial although the decisions by the UK, France and Germany will shape the final EU position.
EU ministers met for the last time on 16 July, one day before the crash, and decided to target “entities, including from the Russian Federation, that are materially or financially supporting actions undermining or threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.” Now, the EU has to decide how to respond since Russia has been implicated in the incident and the obstructions to the site of the crash. EU ministers are expected to extend the list of officials and entities under the asset freeze and travel ban, and possibly, to consider sectorial sanctions.
The UK is leading a coalition, including Poland and the Baltic countries, that promotes the enforcement of tougher sanctions and an arms embargo. Prime Minister, David Cameron, told the UK parliament on Monday, “It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt. Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbours.”
As with the annexation of Crimea, the meeting today is expected to pose several challenges for the EU member states. First, they need to clarify whether Russia can actually be considered responsible for the crash of MH17. As Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte noted, the EU would impose further sanctions on Russia if it were proved that Russia had been directly or indirectly responsible for bringing the plane down. Second, the summit will once more test the EU’s unity in formulating a coordinated response and foreign policy. Finally, the case will reopen the dilemma of whether the EU should punish violations of international law at the expense of trade and commerce. In this respect, France has already faced criticism for protecting its €1.2 billion deal on the sale of two Mistral helicopter assault ships to Russia, since cancelling the deal is perceived to be more damaging for French interests than Russian interests.