Seeking Consensus: Foreign ministers Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands, left, Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski and Italy's Federica Mogherini confer prior to a meeting of foreign affairs ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels last week. (THIERRY CHARLIER/ / AFP)
PARIS — Europe will harden its line against Moscow after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, but sniping between Britain and France shows that the road to political consensus will be long and hard, analysts said.
The 28 European Union foreign ministers agreed July 22 to stiffen sanctions unless Russian President Vladimir Putin moves toward settling the Ukraine crisis. Ministers have yet to detail the fresh sanctions, which include banning new arms sales and adding 15 people and 18 companies and organizations to the sanctions list.
Current arms contracts, including delivery of a Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Moscow, will be exempt.
The previous day, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said it would have been “unthinkable” for Britain to proceed with the €1.2 billion (US $1.6 billion) ship deal inked in 2011, while French President François Hollande said the first ship would be handed over to Moscow, but whether the second will follow depends on Russia’s “attitude.”
That drew accusations of hypocrisy from the leader of the French Socialist Party and this riposte from Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: “I say to my dear British friends, let’s speak of finance. I’m led to believe there are quite a few oligarchs in London.”
The cross-Channel sniping between Europe’s leading military powers — parties to a 2010 pact to deepen defense cooperation — indicated how domestic politics and business interests made it difficult for Europe to show a united front, even during a crisis on its borders.
An option, drawn up by the European Commission, would forbid investors to buy new issues of shares and debt instruments from state-controlled Russian banks, the Financial Times reported July 25. The newspaper said the measure was unlikely to be adopted because several EU countries have resisted sanctions against an entire sector.
Meanwhile, the remains of passengers on the MH17 flight were flown to Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, then carried in hearses to Hilversum for identification.
Cameron’s anti-French comment reflected “domestic politics” as Britain heads toward a general election next year, said François Lureau, a former French defense acquisition chief now with the euroFLConsult consultancy. The French government has less electoral pressure as the administration is in midterm.
Lureau said Britain and France remain close partners in defense; current joint development projects include an anti-ship missile, a study for a future combat drone and an anti-sea mine system.
But the very word Mistral — French for cold and violent wind blowing in the south of France — has acquired a new meaning.
“We see the Mistralisation of European policy,” Lithuanian President Dalia Guybauskaité told broadcaster LRT on July 22. “Values and security are undermined for the sake of business, when ‘buy and rule’ is being applied.”
French Sen. Daniel Reiner dismissed the criticism. Despite the spat, he said, “things are moving forward” between France and Britain. Reiner noted the countries’ two-year, £120 million (US $205.4 million) deal — signed at the Farnborough International Airshow earlier this month — to study a future unmanned combat air system, and said other work includes a nuclear simulator and exercises with the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.
The reality is that forging tougher sanctions among 28 nations is slow work.
“Step by step, little by little they arrive at a consensus because they have to find the common ground,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director at think-tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques. “None of the countries say it will go it alone.”
Maulny said reaching a consensus is hard because countries vary in their dependence on Russia, closeness to the US and view of Moscow as a threat. Britain is a hawk, while France, Germany and Italy are among the doves, he said. Moreover, each country has its own business interests.
France, for example, wants to deliver the Mistral lest it undermine its effort to sell Rafale fighters to India, Maulny said.
Bertrand Slaski, project manager at consultancy Compagnie Européenne d’Intelligence Stratégique, agreed on the Rafale angle.
“It is of capital importance to show to customers and potential customers France is a reliable supplier,” he said. “France does not let down client countries.”
Slaski said Russia uses the same approach, steadfastly supplying arms to Syria and Iran.
He noted that US exports to Russia are worth an annual $11 billion, while Russia exports goods worth about $27 billion to the US. Trade between Europe and Russia, however, totals €400 billion annually. Germany imports gas, and sells machine tools and other equipment; Rheinmetall is building a €100 million military training center about 300 kilometers from Moscow. Italy also buys energy and has commercial aircraft interests, including supplying equipment for the Sukhoi Superjet. Iveco hopes to sell more armored vehicles to the Russian Army.
“The lack of a common policy shows the need for drawing up a European defense white paper,” Slaski said.
As for sanctions, Lureau said, “What would be more effective would be to set up a full package of economic sanctions rather than a piecemeal approach, which has no effect.”
Arms to Russia
It’s not just the French who are calling the British hypocrites. In a July 23 report, the parliamentary committee on arms export controls showed that far from halting all existing defense sales contracts with Russia, as the Conservative-led coalition government had claimed in March, London still had not blocked 251 export licenses valued at £132 million.
Among the 34 licenses that were blocked or amended to remove Russia as a permitted destination were components for aero-engines, warships, missiles, attack helicopters, military vehicles, head-up displays, focal plane arrays, signature suppression and cryptography equipment. Still in force, however, are export licenses for cryptographic software, sniper rifles, military communications equipment, night sights, body armor, ammunition and other items.
The British government said last week it would review the licenses but that the majority of those left in place covered equipment for commercial use. Officials said Britain had not sold arms to Russia since March.
In a May 14 letter to the parliamentary committee, Business Secretary Vince Cable outlined his understanding of the German position on arms export licenses.
“Germany is currently not granting new export licenses for military goods, or for dual-use items where the end user is the armed forces or internal security forces of Russia and that extant licenses were being reassessed,” Cable said.
France authorized €403 million in arms sales to Russia between 2008 and 2012, with €57 million signed off in 2012, down from €104 million in 2011, the annual arms export report to parliament shows.
James Hackett, senior fellow for defense and military analysis at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said that while the Europeans had struggled for unity within a European Union context, their approach through NATO had been more cohesive.
“Since the financial crisis, the Europeans’ response has often been along national lines. In addition, getting agreement has not been helped by the fact there are 28 states with a stake in these issues.
“Within the NATO context, though, where many of the same countries are members, there has been more progress than is often understood because of the focus on the European Union and the contracts the governments have. A lot will come out at the NATO summit,” said Hackett.
The Ukraine crisis had completely changed the summit agenda, Hackett added.
“It has reasserted the centrality of European security. It’s almost NATO getting back to basics,” he said. “Before this [the Ukraine crisis] started, the post-Afghanistan ‘what now’ question was the issue motivating people. Ukraine has totally changed the agenda. It’s likely we will see a series of strong statements coming from the alliance on reassertion of collective defense.
“That is starting to be borne out by the assurance initiative the alliance has started to put into place in Eastern Europe, with more exercises, a new readiness action plan, enhancing the NATO Response Force.”
In the US, the Obama administration continues to call on France to cancel the Mistral deal.
“It seems like a suboptimal time, if you will, to be transferring advanced military systems to them,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
In London, the Russian ambassador said the sanctions were illegal.
The French defense and foreign ministries were unavailable for comment.■
Andrew Chuter contributed from London.