Skripal poisoning: EU to back UK in call for Russia to explain nerve attack

Foreign ministers to press for enforcement of chemical weapons convention

Salisbury nerve-agent attack: emergency services at the grave of Liudmila Skripal, wife of the poisoned former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Salisbury nerve-agent attack: emergency services at the grave of Liudmila Skripal, wife of the poisoned former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

 

The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, will secure the support of European Union allies on Monday over the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. EU foreign ministers meeting at the Foreign Affairs Council will hear a report from Johnson on the evidence surrounding the attack and Russia’s alleged responsibility.

A statement from the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, is likely to echo the strong demand issued by Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom on Friday, calling on the Kremlin to explain the military-grade nerve-toxin attack, which they said threatened western security. The Bulgarian presidency of the EU has already called on Moscow to answer the UK’s “legitimate questions”. Nato has also issued a statement strongly supportive of the UK line.

Increased sanctions against Russia are not on the agenda on Monday, although earlier in the month the union upped its sanctions against the country over its annexation of Crimea, four years ago this weekend, and its support for rebels fighting the government in the Donbass region of the country. The EU added four more people to the list of 150 currently facing travel restrictions and asset seizures, and the issue is on Monday’s agenda.

Chemical weapons convention

Ministers’ emphasis over Salisbury, diplomatic sources say, will be on seeing the activation of the mechanisms of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which enforces the chemical weapons convention. Its ban on their production and use has been backed by 192 signatory states, making it one of the most universally approved international documents in history. Breaking it can entail far more serious sanctions than those Russia has faced for its earlier attempts to assert itself globally.

Diplomats say that, at a minimum, Russia has lost control of chemical weapons in breach of the treaty, a charge at this stage much more easily sustainable than alleging direct responsibility for the attack. The EU will certainly support the UK in any move to send weapons inspectors into Russia to view its programme, given Russia’s 1997 signature of the convention.

Russia’s conduct internationally will be, as one Irish diplomat put it, “a river running through” most of the Foreign Affairs Council discussions today. On Syria’s unending war, Russia, which has been propping up the Assad regime, will be reminded of its responsibility as a UN Security Council member to see to the implementation of its recent resolution 2401, demanding a cessation of fighting to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and medical evacuation needed across Syria, but particularly in eastern Ghouta and Afrin.

Ministers will also discuss the threat posed to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal posed by the US administration’s insistence that the agreement must be strengthened. Britain, France and Germany have launched a discussion on fresh EU sanctions aimed at mollifying Washington by increasing separate pressure on Iran over its ballistic-missile programme and military activity in the region, from Syria to Yemen.

On the key issue of protecting the nuclear deal the EU may actually, officials suggest, have Russian support.