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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

EU nations say they will act against Russia over UK spy poisoning

Bloc recalls ambassador to Russia in show of support for Britain

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, shakes hands with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite during a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on March 23, 2018. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP Photo
British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, shakes hands with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite during a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on March 23, 2018. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP Photo

Several European governments moved closer on Friday to expelling Russian diplomats in a show of support for Britain, which ordered out 23 "undeclared intelligence agents" after a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy.

In a boost for Prime Minister Theresa May, the European Union as a whole agreed late on Thursday to pin the blame on Moscow for the attack, which a judge in England said may have left Sergei Skripal and his daughter brain damaged.

That hardened previous EU language on the issue as French President Emmanuel Macron and others helped Mrs May overcome hesitation on the part of some of Moscow's friendlier states, some of whom questioned how definitive Britain's evidence was.

In a symbolic move that displayed unity of purpose, the bloc also recalled the EU ambassador to Russia for consultations — a conventional form of diplomatic protest.

And in a sign that nations were prepared to go further to punish Russia, which denies any involvement in the attack, several EU leaders said on Friday they were considering expelling diplomats.

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"What we will now consider in the coming days is whether we want to take individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said as he arrived at the second day of an EU summit in Brussels.

"So we would have to do a security assessment just like they [Britain] did ... We're not going to randomly expel people."

Britain has been pressing for co-ordinated action against Russia after the Skripals were found slumped on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4 in what was the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since the Second World War.

Some British officials were pressing other countries to expel diplomats after London told 23 Russians to leave, a move followed by measures in Moscow, including the closure of Britain's cultural centre in St Petersburg.

But first Mrs May had to convince others to back a tough statement saying that the EU "agreed" with her government "that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation".

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU's power brokers, raised the prospect of further measures late on Thursday after expressing solidarity with Britain just days after the attack.

Concerned about neighbouring Russia, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies.

"I think that national measures will be applied already starting from next week," she told reporters on Friday.

Other Baltic states, Poland and Denmark have signalled they could do so too, action that could sting Russia, which is preparing for the football World Cup in June.

But the deep divisions over how to handle Russia were again on show, with other, some smaller nations, saying they could not join a co-ordinated expulsion. Some said they could ill afford Russian retaliation against their own Moscow embassies, some of which employ barely a handful of accredited diplomats.

Austria said it did not plan to expel Russians.

For Mrs May and her team, however, the show of support went above their expectations, keenly away that Britain's departure from the EU has put strains on their relations.

"This is about us standing together to uphold our values," Mrs May told reporters on leaving the summit in the early hours.