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Expert On EU: Not So Sure Russian Sanctions 'Will Disappear Quickly'

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the G7 Summit at La Malbaie, Quebec, on June 8, 2018.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the G7 Summit at La Malbaie, Quebec, on June 8, 2018.

RFE/RL: We saw new Italian Prime Minister Antonio Conte expressing quite a negative view of the EU's economic sanctions against Russia. Do you think that they will survive another renewal at the end of June?

Pierre Vimont: Don't forget, first of all, that this Italian position taken by the new Italian prime minister is a position that Italy has been pushing forward as early as when we introduced the Russian sanctions. The then-prime minister, Matteo Renzi, was somewhat uncomfortable with these sanctions, and several times he tried to push them back, so it is not entirely new from that point of view. But what I always found quite interesting with the Russian sanctions, as we call them, is that there were many differences among member states. Usually, when they discussed that either at the level of foreign ministers or at the level of heads of state and government, they started their discussion by being far apart one from one another, but every time they managed to stick together at the end of the day, because the Russian sanctions may be one of the few real successes of the EU diplomacy for the last four or five years, and because, also, one must accept the fact that the Russian intervention in Crimea, [as well as] its interference in east Donbas, means for the Europeans a major blow to our cooperation with Russia and something that we cannot let go easily. So, to answer your question, I think it may take maybe more time to see whether the sanctions will stick or will not stick. Don't forget that the new Italian government, this new coalition, has a lot of requests with regard to Europe, so it is not only about moving away from the Russian sanctions. It is about how Europeans could help with the banking reform in Italy; it is going to be about the increasing public expenditure from Italy; they will need to get a green light from the Europeans on this; they may ask for economic support with some of the regions in Italy, etc. So, you may find yourself facing a sort of bargaining there. It will be interesting to watch. But to put it in a nutshell, I am not sure that the Russian sanctions will disappear as quickly as some are saying.

RFE/RL: But then, again, the landscape has shifted a bit in the European Union. It is not only Italy. You have populists in other countries who are quite against sanctions and pro-Russian. Do you think that, in the long run -- maybe not this summer, but going forward a bit -- the sanctions regime might be wound down?

Vimont: You have to put this back into the context of our European policy toward Russia. It is based on two legs, as we always say. On one side, we have to show firmness, namely the sanctions. On the other side, we are looking for dialogue. It is not easy. It is complicated, because -- of course -- on the other side, the Russian leadership is uneasy with those sanctions; [the Russian leadership is] grumpy and unhappy. Therefore, to keep the sanctions on one side and to go ahead with more dialogue on the other side is not an easy task. We all know that. But we also know that if we don't keep on with a firm position toward Russia, and to show that we can be strong when we need to, that implies that we stick to our sanctions for the time being. If we are not able to do that, we know perfectly well that we will not have any more real leverage with regard to Russia. So, I think it is that kind of balance that we have to keep. Does it mean that we will always keep the sanctions regime as it stands? You know, it has several components. It has some sanctions that are directly related to individuals, to Russian personalities, [while] others are economic sanctions, so we can play on those sets of sanctions and change here and there some of these if we need to.But I think to just get rid of all sanctions, be it individual or economic, I don't see this coming immediately soon or even in the longer term, because I think there is this sense that we need to keep the balance between sanctions and dialogue.

RFE/RL: So, in a sense you think that sanctions in the future might be amended a bit, might be scaled down?

Vimont: Amended, scaled down, revised -- you can drop some names on the individual list of sanctions, but you can add others if you think those are more relevant. You can go for new sanctions on certain types of technology, if need be, and drop others. There is the possibility of regularly adapting, updating those sanctions. This can be done. This has been done in the past. Some individuals out of Russia can complain and ask that their names be dropped, because they have nothing to do with Crimea or the eastern Ukraine interference from Russia, so all this has to be taken into account.

RFE/RL: We will have an impending Brexit, most likely. What impact do you think a European Union without Britain might have on Russian sanctions, especially since Britain really pushed for the sanctions?

Vimont: It did push. Britain was useful in providing the necessary foundation for a good legal base for those sanctions. In other words, sometimes they can come up with proper intelligence that helps us to set up a right legal base for sanctions. As you know, the European courts are looking at this very closely. So, it is true that [the] British contribution to the setting up of those sanctions was important. But I think that even with Brexit, Europe still has the means and the proper instruments to go ahead with sanctions. You know, it was not only Britain which was at the forefront of implementing and supporting those sanctions. You have many other countries: you have Germany; you have France. These have always been very strong in pushing sanctions. Those who are today thinking -- maybe -- of amending, of watering down those sanctions have more to do with Italy -- that you named -- maybe with Cyprus, Greece, and a few others. People are talking now also about Austria or Hungary. But Hungary in the past has always been very vocal in admitting that they were uneasy with the Russian sanctions, but at the end of the day, when we had to decide whether we would roll over the sanctions or not, Hungary at the end always accepted to go for this rollover.

RFE/RL: Before there was a lot of transatlantic cooperation and coordination when it came to the Russia economic sanctions. But now, there is also tension in the transatlantic link. Do you think that might have an impact on the sanctions regime as well?

Vimont: I am not sure it will have an impact, but I think your assessment is quite accurate. One of the real difficulties we are facing today with the new American administration is this feeling of unilateralism, of unilateral decision, being decided in Washington without much dialogue with the Europeans. Think about the recent decision on the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal; think about the decision by the U.S. administration to transfer their embassy to Jerusalem; think about the recent decision on trade -- steel and aluminium, increasing the trade duties on these two products. These are usually decisions that are taking place without much dialogue with the Europeans, without much discussion, and without -- most of the time -- taking into account European interests. And of course, this doesn't go down well with Europeans. They are not happy with that situation. Does it mean that they will change their mind on the [Russia] sanctions because of that? I don't think so, because, once again, the sanctions the Europeans have taken against Russia have a lot to do with the European interests in Ukraine, in our neighborhood, and we think that the Russian decision to intervene in Crimea and to annex Crimea goes against international law. Their interference in eastern Ukraine is unacceptable for us. So, there you have strong justification for European sanctions, whether they are coordinated or not with the Americans. It happens that the Americans also have taken sanctions. That is something we have noticed, and we agree with, but that will not prevent Europeans from going ahead on their own.