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EU data shows members taking full advantage of parliamentary allowances while avoiding attending sessions
Trying to find Ukip’s MEPs in the corridors of European power in Brussels or Strasbourg can be a frustrating task, according to former party staff members, because they are allowed to wander at will. But woe betide those who go missing when it is time to donate cash.
As party leader Nigel Farage prepares for what is expected to be a successful European parliament election on 22 May – which may provide impetus for the general election – those who have worked for the party claim the MEPs can do as they please, most of the time.
Some rarely carry a mobile phone while others do not turn their phones on; and one or two, it is alleged, have become involved in “extracurricular work” – managing private businesses – at times when they could have been working for constituents.
“They come and go when they like. For weeks, you may not see one and then they are all there – invariably at a bar occupied by other elderly British men,” said one former Ukip employee. “Their primary reason for coming in is to claim money.”
But if MEPs fail to donate to the party – the Guardian disclosed on Monday that in 2011 the party insisted they give £10,000 each or risk being deselected – they can be put under acute pressure to leave the group, MEPs said.
Nikki Sinclaire, the West Midlands MEP who left Ukip in 2010, said: “The only discipline the party’s MEPs come under is that they must sign up to Ukip and the party’s grouping, the Europe of Freedom and Democracy [EFD]. As long as they don’t cause him any problems. Generally they don’t turn up.”
Sinclaire said she had left the party after refusing to sign up to the EFD because some of the grouping’s members held homophobic and racist views. She said she had been forced out because the party needed her signature to gain access to EU money. “Nigel and others do expect loyalty when it comes to the party’s finances. That is how they fund the party and how they are funding May’s election,” she said.
According to official figures from the EU and Britain’s Electoral Commission, Ukip MEPs have continued to excel in the claiming of EU expenses and generous donations to their party in the UK.
In 2012, the party’s MEPs claimed £370,000 for office costs and received nearly £420,000 in subsistence allowances for meals and hotels. In the same period, they donated more than £400,000 of their own money to the party.
All MEPs receive a salary of £78,000 but must appear at a parliamentary building in order to receive various allowances.
Ukip MEPs claimed an average of £35,635 each in “general expenditure allowances” in 2012, which should cover “office management costs”. The allowances are in addition to salaries, travel expenses and “daily subsistence allowance”. Ukip did not return calls seeking comment for this article, but said last week: “All our MEPs conduct their financial affairs honestly and comply with the rules covering allowances and expenses.”
Paul Nuttall, the party’s North West MEP, has donated £12,400 to Ukip since election in 2009, according to the Electoral Commission. His allowances claim last year was £40,436. He was among MEPs who have given Ukip donations of £426,000 since the 2009 election.
Godfrey Bloom, the outspoken MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, has claimed £46,722 in allowances and paid £72,000 in donations since 2004. He left the EFD after saying British aid went to “bongo bongo land” but is understood to have remained close to Farage.
Derek Clark, MEP for East Midlands, claimed £56,822 general and subsistence allowances and has donated £187,000 to the party since 2004. Clark was asked to repay £31,800 of EU allowances two years ago after it was found that the money was paying salaries for party staff.
Stuart Agnew, representative for East of England, has claimed more than £78,000 in allowances and made at least £31,000 in donations since 2009; Mike Nattrass, who resigned the party whip in September, has received £59,845 in allowances and donated £96,000 since 2004.
Senior Ukip figures have defended the party’s position on expenses, and say they are relaxed about diverting money to the party in Britain.
Last month, Trevor Colman, a Ukip MEP for the South West, told the BBC that allowances were a factor influencing his motivations for appearing at the EU parliament. “I wouldn’t say getting the allowances is one of the main motivations, I’m trying to be fair about it, it is a factor, of course it is,” Colman said.
He defended his decision not to concentrate on making speeches, saying he was instead concentrating on an anti-EU website. “Why make a speech when you know that it is totally ineffective? That you are there talking to a gallery of about six people, I don’t quite see the point in doing that,” he told the BBC. Colman, who is standing down in May, employs five full-time staff who mainly work on the website, plus another to cover Strasbourg and Brussels. He echoed the sentiments of other senior Ukip activists when he said European democracy is a farce and he uses its funds to try to shed light on its failings.
Ukip officials say they are coming under intense media scrutiny because of the political implications of their rise. Last week, polls showed the party attracting 14% of the vote, which could rise considerably at May’s elections.
The Tories are expected to face the greatest damage as a result of Ukip’s rise. David Cameron, who once branded the party’s supporters “fruitcakes, nutters and closet racists”, has since called for them to return to the Conservatives if they wish to curb immigration and see a referendum on EU membership.
Robert Halfon, the influential Tory backbench MP, last week compared the views of Gerard Batten, the Ukip MEP for London – who believes Muslims should sign a special code of conduct – to those of the Nazis, who insisted Jews should wear a yellow star.
Halfon, who is Jewish, said: “I genuinely find it abhorrent and frightening. I’m amazed that the man is still an MEP.”
One party official said the Tories – as well as the media – were panicking in the face of a new political force and brushed off allegations of a misuse of EU funds. “We are taking the Devil’s money to do God’s work. And the more we are scrutinised and attacked, the stronger we seem to be with the electorate.”
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Party belongs to Europe for Freedom and Democracy grouping, which has MEPs with extreme views and uses anti-Islam rhetoric
Members of Nigel Farage’s political group in the European parliament have compared childbearing Muslim women to Osama bin Laden, spoken at a rally with the BNP’s Nick Griffin, and defended some of the far-right views of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.
Farage is facing a decision after the May elections over whether to keep Ukip in the Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, an alliance of parties from different countries of which he is co-president, amid criticism of the extreme positions of some of its MEPs and examples of anti-Islam rhetoric on its website.
Ukip argues that all British political parties are forced to have “strange bedfellows” in Europe as it allows parties to qualify for more speaking time in the EU parliament. However, MEPs in any such alliance must have “political affinity” or risk being disbanded by the EU and losing their funding.
Some anti-Islam comments appear on the EFD’s own website. In one video, Magdi Cristiano Allam, an MEP from the I Love Italy party, is translated as saying that Islam is not a religion but an ideology “that preaches hatred, violence and death, but that is something we’re not allowed to say”. His comments are made in response to a speaker at an EFD “study day”, who argues against “caving in” to Muslims in Europe and warns of the threat of “Islamisation” of western society.
One politician in the EFD, Slavi Binev from Bulgaria, spoke at Ukip’s conference last year. An interview with Binev on his website says: “If Osama bin Laden symbolises the cruellest aspect of the Islam for the Americans, then the Muslim woman with her numerous children are his European equivalent.”
The group also contains Frank Vanhecke, a Belgian MEP, whose former party Vlaams Blok was disbanded after a court found it violated anti-racism legislation in 2002.
Vanhecke, now an independent, appeared at a student rally with Griffin, the BNP leader, in 2010 and told the Guardian he believes “Islamisation” is a serious problem for Europe.
Another politician in the group is Morten Messerschmidt, a Danish MEP whose youth organisation was given a conviction for incitement to racial hatred in 2002 after it argued crime such as rape was a product of a multi-ethnic society.
Ukip’s biggest partners in the EFD group are the Italian Lega Nord, which is reportedly considering leaving the EFD after the May elections for a tie-up with Marine Le Pen’s far-right French National Front. Farage’s co-president is Francesco Speroni, an Italian MEP from Lega Nord, who defended some of the views of Breivik in 2011 saying: “If [Breivik's] ideas are that we are going towards Eurabia and those sorts of things, that western Christian civilisation needs to be defended, yes, I’m in agreement.”
Earlier this year, one of the Italian anti-immigrant party’s MPs, Gianluca Buonanno, “blacked up” in the country’s parliament to make a point about the level of benefits for ethnic minorities.
Ukip said Lega Nord would be leaving the EFD alliance after the May elections, but Speroni told the Guardian last night that “any saying about this matter is very premature, nothing has been decided yet”. He also said the EFD would have to check whether it has enough MEPs and member countries to remain “alive” under EU rules after the next election.
The rhetoric of some EFD parties contrasts with Farage’s emphasis that Muslims are welcome in Ukip. The Ukip leader has said he will not go into an alliance with Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam Dutch politician, or the French Front National and publicly rejected the suggestion of Gerard Batten, a senior Ukip MEP, that Muslims should sign a code of conduct.
Arun Kundnani, an academic at New York University and author of The Muslims are Coming!, said it was worrying that a mainstream party such as Ukip has links to people who have expressed ideas of the Islamophobic far right.
“The argument that Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian ideology is the standard line of the US far-right Islamophobic conspiracy theorists,” he said. “The term ‘Islamisation’ also has the same pedigree.”
Mary Honeyball, a Labour MEP, added: “Ukip’s decision to sit alongside such unsavoury groups as Lega Nord speaks volumes about where they really stand in relation to the extreme right.”
Former Ukip MEP Mike Nattrass said the “undesirable” views of some EFD members was one reason he left the party. “All that to me is outrageous,” he said. “Yes, [Farage] did need the numbers to make up the group,” he said. “But [they] don’t need these people. The problem in that group is they don’t all really share the same views. Ukip isn’t anti-Islam actually, though it might be in league with people who are.”
Asked about his views, Vanhecke said he did speak at a Ghent rally “in company of Nick Griffin and MEPs from other rightwing parties” but he does not consider himself anti-Islam because he respects other cultures and would describe himself as a Flemish and European rightwing patriot.
“I do not remember if the theme was Islamisation (I rather think it was not) – but had it been so it would not have been a problem for me,” he said. “I do consider Europe has a serious problem with Islamisation, a threat to fundamental democratic values such as the separation of church and state… and the strict egality between men and women.”
Asked about his views on Muslims, as well as the conviction for racial hatred in 2002, Messerschmidt said: “The board of our youth movement, to which I belonged at that time, was convicted. The text was that a multi-ethnic society would lead to more crime, etc. There was no pointing in the text at specific groups, but a concern about the multi-ethnic ideology, something similar to what Cameron and Merkel have addressed.”
A Ukip spokesman said: “The EFD group is a loose marriage of convenience formed in order to get more speaking time in the European parliament.
“Ukip is a libertarian party which condemns racism and xenophobia. The party does not share a common political platform with others involved in the EFD. All British political parties have strange bedfellows in the European Parliament. For example, the Labour Party participated in a Party of European Socialists (PES) summer camp in 2012 in which gay delegates were confronted with rampant homophobia and threatened with violence. Let Ed Miliband explain that.”
The party said the speaker on Islam at an EFD study day was not an MEP, assistant or adviser to the EFD Group but merely giving a personal view from her experience.
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Divert Brussels payments to party, says key donor, as critics say funds plea could send them to jail
A leading member of the UK Independence party, which has railed against the European “gravy train”, has demanded its MEPs contribute £10,000 each from their parliamentary allowances and salaries towards the costs of the party’s British headquarters or risk being deselected.
Alan Bown, a party donor who sits on its national executive committee, wrote to Ukip representatives in Brussels in 2011 suggesting they should be “good value for money” and divert EU cash to the party’s headquarters or face the sack, according to leaked documents. He pointedly added that thousands of pounds of EU allowances could be claimed without submitting receipts.
Party leader Nigel Farage and the party’s national executive committee subsequently put pressure on the MEPs to pay more to support the running of the party, sources said. Ukip sources say MEPs are still placed under “immense pressure” to contribute to the party.
Bown’s proposals prompted a furious response from the party’s MEPs, who feared they would be at risk of breaking the law if they diverted funds. Another leaked email shows that the party’s immigration spokesman, Gerard Batten, warned Ukip officials that he and other MEPs could face jail if they carried out Bown’s demands.
The disclosures are confirmation that the party’s MEPs have been under increasing pressure to divert their allowances into the party’s UK operations, in breach of EU rules.
EU documents state that allowances “are only eligible when spent on activities and objects which are directly linked to the office of a member of the European parliament”. Bown, a former bookmaker, sent an email to national executive members in January 2011 with an attached document titled “MEPs’ Financial Contributions to the Party“.
He complained that MEPs had failed to contribute to the party and pointed out that it costs £125,000 to get each of them elected, questioning whether they were good value for money.
Arguing that the party’s headquarters, Lexdrum House in Devon, spends a lot of money getting MEPs elected, he added: “In my opinion the MEPs have a clear duty to help finance Lexdrum House.”
The email points out that to get on a Ukip selection list, MEP candidates have to sign a “code of conduct” document complying with Bown’s demand that MEPs “provide substantial financial support to the central party out of income”.
A version of the code of conduct from 2008 has been leaked to the Guardian. It says the party’s MEPs pledge to “submit to oversight and act on advice from the party regarding the use of parliament allowances and expenses”.
In his email, Bown, 71, says: “Most MEPs draw a salary of £80K+ per year plus generous expenses of approximately £320K some of which does not require receipts.”
He said he had spoken to fellow Ukip peer and former party leader Lord Pearson and suggested he had agreed that this year’s reselected candidates should be judged in part on their payments to the party.
“Before an MEP is allowed to stand for re-election for 2014, the NEC should look at their record over the previous 5 years to see what he or she had achieved and particularly their financial contributions to the party.
“The NEC reserves the right to blackball any MEP from standing again if their record was poor.”
Bown’s email prompted an angry response from a number of MEPs, insiders said. A few days later, Batten, who has called for Muslims in Britain to sign a pledge of allegiance, sent an email claiming that following Bown’s advice would risk a criminal record and jail.
“The staff and office allowance combined is £253k,” said Batten. “This money can only be spent according to the rules on staff and offices. Only £42k of that does not require ‘receipts’. To use it for personal or political purposes is against the rules. Are you suggesting we should use it illegally? Are you suggesting we should risk prison to help the party financially?”
Two weeks after the email exchange, some MEPs met Bown, Farage and Stuart Wheeler at the Farmers Club in Whitehall, where they were informed that they were each under pressure to increase contributions to the party.
The party argues the EU is a waste of money and calls for Britain’s withdrawal.
It comes amid concern that the party’s rapid growth in popularity and expensive European parliament election campaign is not being supported by a corresponding rise in income.
It was reported by the Times on Saturday that the EU authorities have been asked to investigate whether some of Ukip’s staff in the UK are being paid from EU money, in breach of regulations.
The disclosures will prove embarrassing for the party as it tries to portray itself as a realistic and influential political force. Some party officials have privately voiced concern that money pledged by Paul Sykes, the former Tory donor, has not come through when they need to fund the European election campaign. Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP, told the Observer this month: “”So far we haven’t seen the colour of his money.”
Ukip has come under increasing scrutiny over its alleged misuse of EU expenses. Tom Wise, the party’s former MEP for East of England, was jailed for expenses fraud after paying himself £36,000.
Two of the party’s senior members have repaid more than £37,000 meant for office staff after diverting it to party workers based in the UK.
Nikki Sinclaire, MEP for the West Midlands, told the Guardian last year that Farage told her the party would not be able to gain access to extra funds meant for a new political grouping without her support.
The party denied her claims.
Batten told the Guardian on Friday that he has never broken the rules.
“My donations to the party are made out of my personal income,” he said. Ukip said: “Alan Bown is an extremely generous donor to Ukip and is one of 16 members of the party’s NEC. He is well known for seeking to encourage other members of the party including MEPs to seek to emulate his own outstanding levels of generosity. All of our MEPs conduct their financial affairs honestly and comply with the rules covering allowances and expenses. Any donations they make to the party come from their post-tax salaries.”
Bown is in the US and did not respond to requests for a comment.
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The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that reaching a final comprehensive deal would be “difficult” and “challenging.”
With two of them occupying key posts in the new government, the country’s richest men are key players in the unfolding crisis between Kiev and Moscow
Ukraine’s oligarchs may lag behind their Russian counterparts in cash terms, but they are much more politically active – so it is no accident that the new government has called on them to back the regime. Two of the biggest have agreed to run provinces in the frontline of Russian threat. Yet Ukrainian oligarchs must look both east and west. So who are they and where do their loyalties actually lie?
The richest man in Ukraine, with $12.5bn, mostly made from iron and steel and thermoelectricity. Akhmetov has smoothed over an early reputation for mixing with tough street operators. He is the president of Shakhtar Donetsk FC. When in London, he lives at One Hyde Park. This former supporter of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych (he once lent him his private plane) and MP for the Party of the Regions now backs the new government, calling for national unity. His influence in the Russian-speaking east makes his support particularly important.
Ukraine’s best-known oligarch, worth $3.2bn. He offered belated support to the protesters after Yanukovych fled, but then turned down the new government’s request for assistance. The son-in-law of former president Kuchma treads a fine line between east and west. This friend of Tony Blair, and one of the world’s biggest Damien Hirst collectors, made his money selling steel pipes. Claims that he has engaged in dumping (selling goods too cheaply for the purpose of undercutting competitors) in the US and Russia, and the collapse of his Russian insurance company, have depleted his fortune, but he remains the second-richest man. Pinchuk funds Blair’s Faith Foundation, for his sins.
Financed Yanukovych until his downfall. His fights with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko over gas interests are legendary. This bruiser from post-Soviet times fought his way up from the street; he has made billions through RosUkrEnergo, a natural-resources and energy giant. Firtash regards the UK as his second home (he owns a house near Harrods with an underground swimming pool).
The founder of Privat Bank, Kolomoisky has answered the call from the new Ukrainian president to run the central Dnipropetrovsk province. He is well qualified, as he owns the local football team, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. He is thought to be worth $3bn. A fierce opponent of the Yanukovych regime, he was once allied with Tymoshenko.
The “Chocolate King” made his $1bn trading cocoa beans, before diversifying into media. Said to be the most popular man in Ukraine, he backed the Orange Revolution and fought Yanukovych. He stuck doggedly to his pro-EU line in the teeth of opposition.
Just 28, but said to have made $2.4bn through gas sales. He used some of it to buy the football team Metalist Kharkiv. This friend of the Yanukovych family is on an EU sanctions list and has fled the country for Belarus. He says he faces no criminal charges and the corruption allegations are motivated by competitors.
The Ukrainian foreign ministers says that Ukraine will not give up on Crimea as Russian troops and their supporters extend their control in CrimeaConal Urquhart
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Russian president’s spokesman raises spectre of ethnic ‘cleansing’ as orchestrated demonstrations take place in Red SquarePeter WalkerTom McCarthyAlan Yuhas
We explain what’s up with Russia’s naval base in Crimea, a brief history of the region, the Tatars and Peter the Great
On Thursday, Crimean ministers held a vote in their regional parliament to join the Russian Federation and secede from Ukraine, and to organize a referendum on the issue for 16 March. The move comes as international tensions continue to mount over the presence of Russian troops in the peninsula, which reportedly now number 30,000.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister warned the Crimean parliament that “no one in the civilised world” would recognize its referendum, calling the vote “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate”. But the referendum has the support of the Russian parliament, with the speaker of the upper house saying that Russia would “unquestionably back” the referendum’s choice.
The EU and US are mulling sanctions – so far targeting a small number of individuals with visa bans and asset freezes. This comes as a team of OSCE observers has been prevented for a second day from entering Crimea by unidentified armed men.
• Geographic limitations and ambitions: Russia’s capacity to reach the sea is limited by geography, so ports in the north and south seas, leading to larger waters, are crucial.
As the map below illustrates, Sevastopol is a strategically important base for Russia’s naval fleet, in addition to being Russia’s only warm water base. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a 1997 treaty with Ukraine allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet pretty much intact (with 15,000 personnel currently stationed) and lease the base at Sevastopol (extended to expire in 2042).
As Orlando Figes, author of Crimea: The Last Crusade, wrote last week:
Crimea was bound to be the focus of the Russian backlash against the Ukrainian revolution. … For more than 20 years, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its rule by Kiev has been a major source of Russian resentment – inside and outside Crimea – and a major thorn in Ukraine’s relations with Russia.
The Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation – by which Russia rents its naval base at Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government – is so far-reaching in the rights it gives the Russians to exercise their military powers that it is seen by many in Ukraine to undermine the country’s independence. In 2008 the Ukrainians said they would not renew the lease when it expired in 2017. But they buckled under the pressure of a gas-price hike and, in 2010, extended the Russian navy’s lease until 2042.
• Projecting power: Sevastopol has been an important hub to project Russia’s naval power on a global platform. The Black Sea Fleet has seen a flurry of activity since 2008: during the war with Georgia that year, the fleet staged blockades in the Black Sea. The Russian navy was actively engaged with Vietnam, Syria and Venezuela (and up until March 2011, Libya) “for logistics and repair services in their principal ports“. It has also been alleged that Sevastopol has served as the main source in supplying the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war and proved useful with Russia’s role in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons last year. After Syria’s civil war forced Russia to stop using its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus last year, Sevastopol became even more crucial.
• Before Tsarist subsumption: For five hundred years – roughly the middle ages in Europe – Turkic and Tatar tribes traded rule of Crimea. The peninsula spent a few hundred years as a Muslim Khanate and then an Ottoman vassal state, until Russia annexed it in 1783, under Catherine the Great, who thought the region symbolized Russia’s links to antiquity. (She proceeded to parcel out land to aristocrats and build classical-style palaces and gardens.)
By 1900, the Crimean Tatars, once the majority, had been halved by wars and campaigns of Russification. Their population was halved again in 1917, and shortly after that, Stalin forcibly deported most of the remaining Tatars to central Asia. Unsurprisingly, Tatars have largely held fiercely anti-Russian sentiments for a very long time. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatars have been returning, and though they number upwards of 200,000, they’re still a minority.
• Crimean War: With its Black Sea fleet based in Sevastopol, Tsar Nicholas I knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the region – a hugely symbolic feat considering Russia’s tricky relationship with its Muslim population and its centuries in need of a fleet.
But Nicholas’ overconfidence in Crimea in part led to the Crimean war with Britain and France, whose leaders sought to stop Russia’s expanding borders and to slow its influence in the Middle East. The allies won the war, bestowing British culture with the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale and Timothy the Tortoise. The Russians lost, but Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches made sure that the 11-month siege of Sevastopol stuck in the national memory. (Between Sevastopol in 1854 and Leningrad in the second world war, the notorious Russian “siege mentality” may begin to make sense.)
• Khrushchev to Yeltsin: Crimea was given to Ukraine by premier Nikita Khrushchev (himself born at the border with Ukraine) to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s inclusion in the Russian Empire, a “donation” many in Russia still see as illegitimate. Surprisingly, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, didn’t propose an acquisition of Crimea during negotiations to dissolve the Soviet Republics.
• Let’s build some boats: Peter the Great changed the course of history in countless ways, and was an extremely strange man and very serious about boats. (He supposedly said “A great leader who has an army has one hand, but he who has a navy has two.” As a child, he would order around the children of other noblemen as “regiments” pretending to prepare for war. As an adult, he built a small boat by hand and used it to sail across the Neva, the river that runs through St Petersburg.) After a long trip in his youth to western Europe, in particular Amsterdam, where he studied shipbuilding, he returned to Moscow obsessed with dragging Russia into modernity – and making it a rival of the nations he saw in Europe.
Peter saw Russia’s limited access to the ocean as one of its greatest weaknesses, and though it meant tens of thousands of dead serfs to build a city on a unforgiving swamp, he had St Petersburg built on the Gulf of Finland for this very reason: he would reach the sea at every opportunity. With his new northern capital giving access to the Baltic, Peter countered the power of his arch-rival, King Charles XII of Sweden. (To give you an idea of how deep-seated the contest over Ukraine is, Peter defeated Charles’ attempt to conquer Ukraine at the 1709 battle of Poltava.) To the south, Peter fought wars against the Tatars (who else) to gain access to the Black Sea, and built Russia’s first naval base in Taganrog in 1698.
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As Vladimir Putin rebuffs initial US-EU sanctions over occupation, France says assets may be seized if Moscow does not relent
Barack Obama and his European Union allies have unveiled a co-ordinated set of sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea, imposing visa restrictions on individuals and sharpening rhetoric in what has rapidly degenerated into the worst east-west crisis since the cold war.
Early on Friday, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that if the first round of sanctions did not succeed, a second could follow, targeting Russian businesses and people close to Vladimir Putin. But the president rebuffed Washington’s warnings, saying Moscow could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Putin and Obama spoke for an hour on Thursday afternoon. According to the White House, the US president told Putin that newly announced sanctions, introduced in co-ordination with the UK, were a response to Russia’s “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
“President Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community,” the White House said in a statement to reporters.
“As a part of that resolution, the governments of Ukraine and Russia would hold direct talks, facilitated by the international community; international monitors could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians; Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May.”
In their first concrete response to Russia’s move to seize Crimea from Ukraine, Brussels and Washington warned of further sanctions, such as asset seizures, if Moscow did not relent.
“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law,” Obama told reporters in Washington. “That includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty.”
After an emergency EU summit in Brussels, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: “We have experienced very much disappointment in recent days and we’re ready to act.”
The urgency was heightened after the Crimean parliament abruptly and unanimously voted to secede from Ukraine and reposition the Black Sea peninsula as part of Russia. It brought forward a referendum on secession to 16 March, but said such a vote would merely rubber-stamp its own decision. The sudden move elicited cries of protest from the new authorities in Kiev, and grave warnings from the west.
“The decision to hold a referendum in Crimea is illegal and not compatible with the Ukrainian constitution,” Merkel said.
The White House said its visa bans would affect an unspecified number of Russian and Ukrainian individuals immediately, with the threat of asset seizures and bans on doing business in the US hanging as a deterrent against further escalation in Ukraine. The EU agreed to suspend visa and investment talks with Russia and held out the prospect of a full-blown trade and economic conflict with Russia unless there was a diplomatic breakthrough.
“The solution to the crisis in Ukraine must be based on the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine,” said the EU summit statement. “It would be a matter of great regret if Russia continued to refuse to participate in a productive dialogue with the government of Ukraine.”
The EU said Moscow had to open negotiations with Kiev “within the next few days, and produce results within a limited timeframe”.
The EU and the US have struggled to co-ordinate a response to Russia’s boldest military venture since the 2008 war in Georgia because the stakes are very different for both parties. EU-Russia trade volumes, including vast gas imports and engineering exports, are 15 times the level of US-Russia trade. Washington has far less to lose from a trade war, and has hitherto talked tougher.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, speaking in Rome, denied a rift with the EU. “I do not believe there is a gap. There may be a difference of opinion about timing … that’s not unusual when you have as many countries as we do,” he told reporters at a news conference.
German officials also dismissed reports of divisions. “That is something I think that would make Putin very happy,” a senior official said. “He wants to divide us. The reality is that we are on the same page.”
The White House rejected criticism that sanctions risked escalating the crisis, insisting there remained a way for Russia to defuse the situation if it chose.
“While we take these steps I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian as well as the Ukrainian people,” said Obama, repeating calls for international monitors to be allowed into Crimea and other parts of Ukraine to ensure Russian interests were not threatened.
But Obama’s rhetoric was more combative than of late and he accused Russia of not just “violating sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Ukraine but of “stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people”.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he added.
It was clear that the sharpening of the western response was a result of exasperation with Russia’s refusal to make concessions in negotiations in Paris on Wednesday, the first direct talks between Moscow and Washington on Ukraine, but also designed to put pressure on Putin to reverse course.
Representing the camp arguing for a hard line against Russia, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said he was pleased things were moving in the right direction. “It was a heated discussion,” he said.
Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, demanded action to counter Russia’s “open and brutal aggression”. She said: “Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders of Europe after world war two, that is what’s going on. If we allow this to happen, next will be somebody else.”
The Europeans and the Americans are focused on forcing Russia to open a dialogue with Ukraine. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said Kiev was ready to talk to Moscow; it was ready for “co-operation, but not surrender”.
“Mr Putin, tear down this wall,” he said, echoing Ronald Reagan’s demand of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. “Tear down this wall of intimidation, of military aggression.”
In another unexpectedly bold move, the EU decided to push ahead much faster than predicted with a political pact drawing Ukraine closer to Europe, the initial spark for the crisis last November when the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement.
Hitherto, the EU has said that Brussels would revive the pact only after elections scheduled for 25 May, once a new government was installed. Merkel and Tusk said the agreement would be split into political and trade sections. The political part could be signed “days or weeks” before the elections, Merkel pledged for the first time.
Additional reporting by Paul Lewis in Washington
As the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea pressed ahead on Thursday with measures to break away from Ukraine, President Obama said their plans would “violate the Ukrainian Constitution and violate international law.”