A Franco-German plan to resume talks with Vladimir Putin at an EU summit that resulted in a decision to explore economic sanctions against Russia was rejected.
The two-day meeting in Brussels also included an “emotional” discussion about gay rights in Hungary, when EU leaders clashed with Viktor Orbán over a law banning gays from appearing in content, education and entertainment for minors. .
The two topics made what was supposed to be a routine summit of the 27 EU leaders a much more painful encounter. Tensions rose after Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany surprised Angela Merkel of other leaders by suggesting talks with Putin, following Joe Biden’s summit with the Russian president last week.
The decision backfired, with Poland and the Baltic states leading the way, arguing that speaking with Putin was a concession that would not change the Kremlin’s behavior. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauzuda said it was like trying to “hire a bear to keep a jar of honey safe”.
Merkel, who attended what was likely to be her last summit in Brussels as interim head of government, said the discussion over Russia had not been easy. “Personally, I would have liked to take a bolder step here,” he told reporters after the meeting ended in the early hours of Friday. “But it is as good as it is, and we will continue to work on it.”
She challenged the Baltic states’ view that the summit with Putin was a disproportionate reward for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, claiming that the European Union should not rely on the United States to do so head on. Face talks with the Russian president.
“It is not enough (…) to be satisfied simply with a report from the President of the United States,” he said, describing the issue of sovereignty. “I think we should be independent enough to have our own stand.”
Macron said the EU’s failure to reach consensus on a summit with Putin was “not a tragedy”. “The most important thing is to stay united,” he said, adding, “I will be frank, I do not need a European summit to see Vladimir Putin. I have seen him many times as president and I will continue to see him.”
The last EU-Russia summit was held in January 2014, shortly before Russia annexed Crimea to EU sanctions, putting relations on a downward spiral.
Instead of talking to Putin, the EU27 emphasized its approach: In the summit’s closing statement, EU leaders stressed “the need for a robust and coordinated response from the EU and its member states to any malign, illegal and disruptive activity on the part of Russia, using all the tools under the conduct of the European Union. The leaders instructed European institutions to “present options for further restrictive measures, including economic sanctions.”
The controversy over Russia came after European Union leaders confronted Orban over gay rights in Hungary, in what one official described as an “emotional” debate. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who has clashed with Orbán over the rule of law at previous summits, made clear his feelings when he got to the top: “For me, Hungary has a bigger place in the EU.
Antonio Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal, said: “You cannot be a member of the European Union if you do not accept and respect the values that we have in the European Union. Nobody is a member of the European Union because they have to.”
But the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, rejected the idea that Hungary should leave the European Union: “Hungary has 10 million people and I firmly believe that there are 10 million good reasons for Hungary’s existence and being part of the European Union.”
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, the first EU leader to marry a gay couple, said Orban has crossed the red line. “I have not become gay. I, that is not an option,” he said, according to a diplomatic source. “A few years ago, we had dinner in Budapest with my husband. I don’t know you [Orbán] It will never happen again. “
The Hungarian leader, defying his critics, has rejected all accusations of homophobia and said the law aims to ensure that parents have a chance to educate their children. Ahead of the summit, Orban said EU leaders had not read Hungarian law and claimed it “defends gay rights”.
Coming off the top, Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo, who wore a rainbow pin on his lapel, described the discussion as “unprecedented”. “It wasn’t a diplomatic debate, it was quite controversial,” he said.
Only Poland and Slovenia – the latter “a bit” – offered support for Hungary, de Croo said.
Von der Leyen ordered his staff to issue an official warning letter to the Hungarian government about legislation banning LGBT content. “The result is open because it depends on Hungary’s reaction,” he said.
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