EU presses Russia over Syria, Ukraine

European Council President Donald Tusk (left) and president of the Aleppo local council, Brita Hagi Hasan (right) hold a meeting during a EU Summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels on Dec 15, 2016.
European Council President Donald Tusk (left) and president of the Aleppo local council, Brita Hagi Hasan (right) hold a meeting during a EU Summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels on Dec 15, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union leaders tried to pile pressure on Russia on Thursday (Dec 15), urging the Kremlin to protect civilians in Syria while taking steps to save a historic cooperation pact with Ukraine.

The 28 leaders also agreed to extend sanctions against Russia for six months, despite doubts about whether incoming US President Donald Trump may decide to cosy up to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

At the final summit of one of the most turbulent years in EU history, the bloc's 28 leaders were also grappling with preparations for Britain to become the first nation to leave the bloc.

The leaders opened their meeting by hearing from the mayor of eastern Aleppo, who warned of thousands more casualties if Europe failed to press for the protection of civilians.


"The 50,000 citizens of eastern Aleppo are only waiting for their deaths after the failure of the international community," Brita Hagi Hassan said.

French President Francois Hollande accused Russia of "making commitments that it is not keeping", while British Prime Minister Theresa May said the bloc "must also do all we can" to push Moscow and Damascus to give the United Nations access to Aleppo.

But Francois Fillon, the favourite to succeed Hollande in next year's French elections, said during a visit to Brussels that the fall of Aleppo marked the failure of western foreign policy and also hinted at talks with Assad, saying the West should be ready to deal with all parties in Syria, "even those today committing crimes".

The 28-nation summit is drafting a statement condemning Syria and Russia but they will stop short of warning of sanctions against Russia, opting as they did at the last summit in October to say that "the EU is considering all available options", according to a draft seen by AFP.

Sanctions against Russia imposed in 2014 over the conflict in eastern Ukraine were, however, extended with a minimum of fuss, officials said, in another crisis that sees the West at loggerheads with Moscow.

Meanwhile, the EU leaders also reached a deal with the Netherlands on Thursday to stop the country torpedoing the bloc's crucial association agreement with Ukraine.

Dutch voters had rejected the Ukraine pact in a referendum in April, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte had warned that it would be the "biggest ever present" for Putin if it collapsed completely.

The EU agreed the cooperation pact and an associated free trade agreement with Ukraine in 2014 after pro-EU protestors ousted Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow.

But the EU leaders gave the Dutch guarantees that the pact was not a precursor to Ukraine's membership of the union or to military aid for Kiev.

"It wasn't easy, it wasn't pleasant, but it is necessary, because it ensures that the EU can continue to form a united front against destabilising Russian foreign policy," Rutte said after the agreement.

It must now go to the Dutch parliament ahead of elections in which Rutte faces a major challenge from populist parties.

Later, the summit will turn to the populist shock of Brexit, with premier May being frozen out of a dinner where the other 27 EU leaders will discuss the process for Britain's departure.

They have rejected all negotiations until Britain officially triggers the two-year divorce process, expected in March, but May dismissed any suggestion that it amounted to a snub.

"It is right that the other leaders prepare for those negotiations as we have been preparing," she said.

The British government separately rejected a report on Thursday that its ambassador to the EU had warned that it could take up to ten years to agree a new trade deal after Brexit.

"This is the ambassador reflecting the views of others which have been put to him," May's spokesman said.

May also met with outgoing European Parliament chief Martin Schulz and the leaders of Lithuania and Latvia.

Germany's Schulz earlier threatened to block any Brexit deal if MEPs were not involved in negotiations, which are currently set to be led by the European Commission.