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EU and UK at odds over how to coordinate sanctions against Russia

LONDON — Western allies have presented a united front against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, but they’ve hit a familiar stumbling block in deciding the best forum to coordinate sanctions — disagreement between Brussels and London.

After doling out a series of measures meant to punish Moscow over the past month, the European Union, United States and the United Kingdom are now trying to work out the best way to formally synchronize these penalties going forward.

While the EU seems comfortable with the ad hoc status quo, the U.K. has floated the notion of bulking up the G7 group of wealthy democracies to make that the main forum for such discussions, giving it a secretariat to make it more similar to other international organizations such as NATO.

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo announced a new “sanctions dialogue” to streamline coordination on Tuesday after visiting both London and Brussels, but did not offer details on Washington’s preferred method for holding such talks. U.S. President Joe Biden first mentioned such a plan after a NATO summit in Brussels last week, saying allies had discussed creating an organization to ensure compliance with the sanctions, tackle any loopholes and look “at who has violated any of the sanctions, and where and when and how they violated them.”

On Tuesday, Adeyemo made it clear that cooperation on sanctions involves more players than just the 27 governments in the EU when he told an event in London that “more than 30 partners and allies” have formed a “coalition in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

For London, the natural home for discussions on further sanctions is the G7, which includes the U.K., U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told a U.K. parliamentary committee in early March that the G7 has been “instrumental” in coordinating sanctions against Russia, saying the war “demonstrates the importance of working with our allies, including non-democracies.”

She has previously advocated forming a “network of liberty” with partners that share strong trade and security ties, even if they are not liberal democracies.

“It is very important for us to build that very strong network with the G7,” Truss told MPs. “I think we can do more to strengthen the G7 and give it a more permanent footing.”

Observers see in her idea an evolution of the so-called D10 concept — an expanded version of the G7 including Australia, India and South Korea, first pitched by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2020.

But the British proposal does not have much support in continental Europe, according to an EU diplomat. EU leaders believe the G7 has allowed them to have frank discussions on sensitive security matters, but are reluctant to introduce any changes that may make it more vulnerable to pressure from civil servants or others, the diplomat said.

Johnson’s pitch for a D10 rather than a G7 “died” at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, last summer, amid concerns it would be perceived as an anti-China club, the envoy said, adding that attempts to float this idea again will not succeed despite the radical change in circumstances posed by the war in Ukraine.

“It would create more problems than solutions,” the diplomat said, pointing to China’s likely opposition to India joining the group. “We need to play with what we’ve got.”

One EU official suggested the U.K.’s desire to strengthen the G7 stems from its feelings of isolation post Brexit.

“The U.K. is hugely frustrated as they have very little impact on the sanctions packages, so I understand they want to work more via the G7,” the official said. “They are the fifth wheel on the wagon. It’s mostly between the EU and the U.S. The sanctions are such a balancing act within the EU that it’s mostly up to others to align with us once we [are] agreed on internally.”

Others on the Continent suggest allies could create a “committee for sanctions” connected to NATO, arguing the transatlantic military alliance represents the majority of governments involved in those discussions.

However, this option presents the same problem as the expanded G7 proposal: There are six EU countries that have sanctioned Russia that are not members of NATO, nor are Japan and Switzerland, among others. Opponents counter that it would be odd to link economic sanctions with a security alliance.

EU ambassadors have not yet discussed options for more structured cooperation on sanctions, and many feel current coordination efforts with the U.S. are working well. Brussels and Washington are also already trying to meet regularly under the auspices of the Trade and Technology Council, launched in June, with another meeting expected to take place in Paris in May.

Mairead McGuinness, the European commissioner for financial services, said Tuesday the EU and the U.S. are in “lock-step” on sanctions, and that the key was “to ensure effective and full implementation of sanctions across jurisdictions.”

“We will continue to coordinate our response with the strongest determination and unity. And we are fully committed to strengthening our close cooperation on sanctions and sharing information with our U.S. and other partners,” McGuinness said.

Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House foreign affairs think tank, said many international sanctions agreed before Brexit relied on exclusive information shared by Britain, so it would be counterproductive for the EU to try to sideline the U.K. from key discussions on this topic.

“It doesn’t surprise me that some EU governments and the European Commission definitely would rather not have the G7 in the middle of this because of course that reduces their power and their clout vis-à-vis with the U.S., and they get mixed up with Canada, the U.K. and Japan, and then they are not in the driving seat,” Niblett said.

He added there is still merit in an expanded G7 and while Johnson’s “insistence on including India” could create gridlock, Australia and South Korea would be “logical joiners.”

The G7, or an expanded version of it, could also invite countries such as Japan and Switzerland to attend discussions on sanctions on an ad hoc basis, even if they refuse to join the organization formally, he said.

“Using NATO runs the risk of making this an extension of military action and looks too much like ‘the West,’” he said. “G7 would be better — it has the U.S. and the EU in it, as well as the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Japan. And it can be enlarged as the Carbis Bay summit was. Even without a formal secretariat, the existing G7 is the logical forum.

“I don’t see a problem, as long as you don’t call it a number … Whenever the prime minister has tried to go for a catchy title like D10, he’s got himself into terrible trouble because then you do exclude a whole bunch of countries.”

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons defense select committee, supported the idea of opening up the G7 to new members as a way to fight for “stronger standards and values” and begin to “rebuild the foundations” of international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, which he said is not functioning as it was intended.

Barbara Moens and Sebastian Whale contributed reporting.

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