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Latvia calls a meeting of EU FMs

January 25, 2015

Latvia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, has called an emergency meeting of the Member States Foreign Ministers in response to the, to quote the OSCE, “reckless, indiscriminate and disgraceful attack” on Mariupol yesterday that caused so many criminal and unnecessary deaths and injuries.

Understandable.

In such instances, Latvia, which has been a robust supporter of Ukraine throughout the Kremlin war against Ukraine, wants to be seen to be doing something.  How can it not when sitting in an elevated position, and when the statements of condemnation came thick and fast yesterday?

When even the enlightened “doves” demonstrate unambiguous outrage and assign responsibility, clearly counterproductive lines have been crossed by those responsible.  The official silence and thus refusal to condemn the act from Moscow was notable.  As is often the case with politics and diplomacy, it is not what is said – but that which isn’t said – that is equally relevant.

There can be little doubt, at the time of writing, that following this incident, the first set of EU wide sanctions up for annual review and/or renewal in March, will now be renewed.  That said most of those relate to the illegal Crimean annexation.  Whatever sanctions may yet come, or ultimately be relaxed, those specifically relating to Crimea will remain for years to come.  Europe will not accept the illegal annexation of Crimea, and thus sanctions will remain relevant to Crimea for a decade or more if necessary – regardless of any subsequent (albeit unlikely) rapid upturn in European/Kremlin relations in the years ahead.

The most urgent matter, and reason for the Latvian decision in its current role, obviously relates to the war in eastern Ukraine.  Having made such a call, such a meeting of all EU FMs at the behest of those with the presidency of the Council of European Union cannot simply produce more rhetoric, for more rhetoric can be produced without such a meeting.  A view seemingly shared by those that have previously sat at such meetings.

In short, there has to be an outcome, beyond rhetoric, worthy of convening such an enclave.  The options, however, are somewhat limited.  More sanctions?  The arming of Ukraine with advanced defensive weaponry? – An issue that remains very much a bilateral issue in the absence of EU or UN embargoes, but not an EU issue per se.  A search for agreement on the banning of Russia from SWIFT? – The economic equivalent of the “nuclear option”.  Something the UK put on the table many months ago.

There will still be Member States, either genuinely dovish (to the point of spineless considering the challenge to international and regional rule of law), or uncomfortably wiggling on a Kremlin hook, that will try and portray the Mariupol incident in isolation from the larger and increasingly aggressive picture of which the Kremlin is the artist.

In doing so they will attempt to question the proportionality of any EU response to this single incident.  “As abhorrent and criminal as it was, is it significant enough to raise further sanctions, give blessing to arms, or to consider SWIFT bans?” they will ask.  “Reduce the testosterone levels, stop beating chests with indignation,” they will say, “and consider that if we take actions now on the basis of this single incident, the next similar incident that will surely occur, will demand the same response.  Should we not at least wait until several such hideous and clearly attributable acts have been committed before making such a response – after all, we are running out of sanction room that we will all agree to.”

The hawks, however, will naturally be demanding a response to an incident that would qualify for an appearance at The Hague should any of those responsible ever face due process.   They will identify the incident as the latest and most visible and unambiguous in a rapidly deteriorating picture entirely sponsored, progressed and controlled by the Kremlin.  They will no doubt castigate those capitals that consistently accept Kremlin promises of deescalation that are then surprised when instead of getting that, they get further escalation.  “That pattern is clear to all but the willfully blind they will state, just as increased violence always precedes any talks.  Do you not learn?” they will say.   “Just how many disregarded agreements that the Kremlin is party to, must be unilaterally cast asunder by Moscow before you understand?” will be the question asked.  “Are we prepared to be recorded in history as a regional Neville Chamberlain?” they will say.

Thus, the outcome of any emergency EU FMs meeting is far from clear over and above yet another communique of condemnation – but such are the circumstances in which calling an emergency meeting, it raises the expectations that more than official rhetoric will result.

Perhaps Latvia, behind the curtain, has been hammering the telephone and is fairly certain of tangible results over and above what already exists.  Certainly it is hoped so, for holding such a high level urgent meeting that does not deliver something new, may (further) undermine the perception of credibility for the institution far more than failing to hold such a meeting at all.

Whether this will prove to be a diplomatic mis-step for the Latvian EU presidency, or not, remains to be seen.  Time will tell how any success, failure, or movement however small, from this meeting will be judged – just as all previous and future reactions to events in Ukraine will be.  Whatever the case, undoubtedly it will not be Latvia that is on the side of any inaction, although ultimately history would record that the Latvian presidency, having called the urgent meeting, failed to get results if none are forthcoming.

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