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EU changes rules to extend Russian sanctions without unanimity among its 28 members

Published: March 21, 2015
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Source: Fortune

Sanctions will only be lifted when the Minsk agreement is implemented in full–and you’re more likely to bump into Vladimir Putin in the street before that happens.

The European Union moved closer to extending its sanctions against Russia, finding a formula that looks like allowing it to bypass the obligation for unanimity among its 28 members.

The U.S. has been concerned that European unity with regard to Russia is fraying, with a number of E.U. countries openly critical of the sanctions policy for varying reasons.

At a regular meeting of the 28 member states’ heads of state and government, the E.U. agreed that the sanctions adopted last year should stay in place as long as the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreement to stop the war in eastern Ukraine isn’t fully implemented.

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Although officials didn’t spell it out explicitly, the formulation aims to reverse the burden of proof for extending the sanctions, which include bans on the sales of arms or sophisticated equipment for the oil and gas industry, along with measures that effectively stop Russia and its largest banks from using western capital markets.

Under E.U. law, the measures would have had to be renewed by a unanimous vote at the end of July. But a number of countries have voiced concern, anxious at the damage to their trade with Russia, due to their separate national agendas: Cyprus is a key financial hub for the Russian economy; Hungary’s conservative Premier Viktor Orban is keep to ensure continued flows of Russian gas (and to seal a deal for Russian nuclear power which the E.U. wants to ban); Italy is also concerned about its gas supplies, and about the fate of its energy companies’ investments there, and its luxury companies and high-end tourism industry are suffering from the ruble’s collapse.

Most of all, the Greek government has been dropping regular hints that it would veto an extension of the sanctions unless the Eurozone relaxes the terms of the country’s bailout. That has not gone down well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has had to face down a powerful export lobby at home to uphold measures that she sees as necessary to keeping the long-term peace in Europe.

Merkel’s achievement last night (with the support of the U.K., Poland and other more hawkish E.U. members such as the three Baltic states) has been to raise the bar for lifting the sanctions to a level that, almost certainly, neither Russia nor the Ukrainian rebels will ever accept. The Minsk ceasefire agreement specifies restoring Ukrainian government control over the border with Russia, as well as holding elections under Ukrainian law in the rebel-held areas, both of which appear politically impossible in the current circumstances.

 

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