The United States is dispatching an envoy to Paris and Berlin on June 7 and 8 to try to convince European allies «of the importance of maintaining sanctions pressure on Russia», the US Treasury said on June 3.
The Treasury's Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin is to meet with senior government officials from European foreign, financial, and economic ministries, as well as private European banks and financial institutions.
Evidently, the visit is nothing else but a rapid response on the part of the United States to the recent events in Europe with the EU split over anti-Russian sanctions before the bloc’s summit on June 28-29. Any decision must be unanimous while there is no unity on automatic prolongation of the economic sanctions that are due to expire on July 31 this year. In 2016 the sanctions regime on Russia has been coming under pressure as never before. There are growing opposition rumbles being heard across the continent. Some member countries feel that the EU got suckered by US pressure for sanctions while the United States bears only 10% of the lost business. EU exports of agricultural products were off 29% in the past year, equivalent to 4.4 billion Euros and an estimated 130,000 lost jobs.
«We cannot take for granted any decision at this stage,» said Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni after a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on May 31 that Germany would consider easing sanctions on Russia gradually if there is «substantial» progress on the issue of Ukraine.
A day earlier, German weekly Der Spiegel published a story indicating that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is considering lifting some initial sanctions, such as travel restrictions, in return for Moscow’s cooperation on local elections in eastern Ukraine.
The article made it clear that Germany is trying to become more proactive in finding a way out of the stalemate.
«The German society just tears apart at the seams,» reports The Wall Street Journal. «Leading German politicians are increasingly inclined to believe that the European sanctions should be weakened,» the newspaper notes.
And as a further sign that EU-Russia ties were warming, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he would attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in Russia (June 16-18) making him the first head of a EU institution to visit Russia since fighting broke out in Ukraine in 2014.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras condemned the sanctions during a joint press conference held with Russia President Vladimir Putin in Athens on May 27.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó promised after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Budapest that sanctions would not be extended automatically.
Similar signals are coming from Cyprus and Slovakia. In the European Parliament, the matter of sanctions policy against Russia has risen above political divisions. The supporters of staying on track against Russia can be found among all political camps – the Christian Democrats, Socialists, Liberals and Greens.
France’s lower house of parliament adopted a resolution in April, calling for the European Union to lift its economic sanctions against Russia.
France’s Senate will launch debates on a draft resolution calling for the easing and gradual lifting of anti-Russia sanctions on June 8.
The draft resolution has already been supported by the body’s Committee on European Affairs.
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It all goes to show that the prolongation of the punitive measures against Russia at the EU forum will not be a slam dunk decision. «The wavering is pretty clear in Europe,» said Philip Hanson, an expert on the Russian economy and Russia-EU relations at Chatham House think tank in London.
The EU unity is already under strain due to disagreements on how to coordinate best on the fight against terrorism and the refugee problem, not just coming out of Syria, but Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. A showdown is looming with Turkey on its demands that the rules be waived for its no visa ruling or the refugee deal is dead. The anti-Russia sanctions are another divisive issue – the last thing Europe needs now with Brexit and asylum seekers making its life hard enough.
It’s an open secret that the US silently exerts great pressure on EU decisions as the Union's dominant silent partner. US representatives regularly attend meetings of the EU’s Council of Permanent Representatives (ambassadors). And Washington can always rely on Great Britain and on some other EU countries like Poland, Romania and the Baltic States. Now the United States has urgently sent an envoy to make the EU dance to its tune. Perhaps, this time the US administration will influence the EU decision making process and make the summit comply with its whims. But it gets harder as time goes by. Opposition to sanctions is mounting across Europe. It will achieve a critical mass pretty soon to make the punitive measures unsustainable. The differences between the US and the EU are exacerbating as their interests clearly diverge and goals differ. The pressure may not work the next time the bloc votes on the sanctions.