EU seeks unity on Ukraine at crisis talks

AFP , Monday 3 Mar 2014

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini (L) talks with her Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo and French counterpart Laurent Fabius (R) at the start of a European Union emergency foreign ministers meeting on the situation in Ukraine, in Brussels March 3, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

European Union foreign ministers tried to overcome differences at crisis talks on Ukraine Monday, with ex-Soviet satellites demanding sanctions and a possible arms embargo against Russia but others favouring soft diplomacy.

A draft statement under discussion that was seen by AFP, demands Russia "immediately withdraw its armed forces" to their Crimea bases in line with international treaties.

While calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, the draft warns that failing "an agreed solution", the 28-nation bloc will consider "targeted measures, including an arms embargo."

These words were in brackets, however, meaning ministers might decide to change or remove them during their closed-door discussions.

Hawkish ministers from EU nations once in the Soviet sphere, such as Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic, went into the talks demanding sanctions such as visa bans or assets freezes against Russia.

"Some in Russia are still impressed by their military might," said Sweden's also hardline Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "That is not the way to make friends in Europe, in the world."

Others opted for a softer approach, in line with heavyweights Germany and France. "We must substitute confrontation with dialogue," said Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans agreed, saying "we have left the Cold War behind us, there is no need to relight it," but both he and Britain's Europe Minister David Lidington also said sanctions could not be ruled out in the long-term if Russia did not change course.

The talks, the second such emergency EU get-together on Ukraine in less than two weeks, comes amid talk of an extraordinary EU summit this week, possibly on Thursday.

A senior EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said a summit would only be held if ministers arrived at a joint and substantial stand.

"EU considers emergency summit. Does that mean they can offer substance? If not, don't meet. Let MoFAs (ministers of foreign affairs) do weak announcements, not the bosses," tweeted Jan Techau, the head of Carnegie Europe.

France's Laurent Fabius said on arriving that it was vital "that Europeans speak with a single voice" while Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed it was time for diplomacy.

"Europe is without doubt in the worst crisis since the fall of the (Berlin) wall" 25 years ago, he said.

"The threat of a division of Europe is real again," he added. "Now is the time for diplomacy."

"Diplomacy does not mean weakness but is more needed than ever to prevent us from being drawn into the abyss of military escalation."

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he was violating a 1994 accord in which Moscow committed to respect the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine.

But she also suggested, and Putin agreed, to set up a contact group on Ukraine, reflecting Berlin's desire to keep contacts open with Moscow rather than risk an open breach.

"We need to talk to Putin, who has his own good reasons for doing bad things," a senior diplomat told AFP. "The situation is extremely dangerous. We need a way out of this 'us' and 'them' Cold War syndrome."

Since Putin won the Russian parliament's blessing for a military incursion Saturday, outraged Western powers have threatened to kick Russia out of the G8 club it joined with great fanfare in 1997 as it returned to global respectability after years lost in post-Soviet chaos.

On Sunday the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission condemned Russia's "clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

They said that as a result they could not take part in preparatory talks for June's G8 summit in Sochi, site of the just completed Winter Olympic Games.

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