Acid test of EU’s resolve over Russia

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

EU leaders said over the weekend they would be prepared to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, giving Vladimir Putin one more chance to douse the violence in eastern Ukraine and help investigators do their work at the site of the crashed Malaysian airliner or face the consequences.

A statement from the British government said Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande agreed on a telephone call that their ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions at a meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council on Tuesday.

There is already scope to toughen measures announced last week to hit Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders. The EU foreign ministers are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. The number of individuals and companies to be penalized is up for grabs.

The weekend round of diplomacy sounds like a more dramatic move is possible. Could that be the “sectoral” sanctions that Washington has pushed for which could deliver a really serious blow to the already flatlining Russian economy and start shutting it out of international trade and commerce?

Not quite sure. The threats so far have been general rather than specific. Russia provides up to a third of the EU’s energy needs and Germany has particularly strong trade ties.

The euro zone today – strikes, reform and recession

The euro zone economy looks to have contracted at a faster pace in March, according to the latest purchasing managers’ data, hours after ECB President Mario Draghi declared the worst of the debt crisis to be over. A mild recession appears to be in prospect with the probable exception of Germany.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if the existential threat to the currency bloc has passed, many of its members face years of economic hardship yet. With China’s equivalent report also coming in weak, the short-term signs are not auspicous.

Italy’s largest trade union has called a strike for the near future over Prime Minister Mario Monti’s labour reforms which have been rehardened to make it easier to fire not just workers in new jobs but right across the labour force. The prime minister says he won’t negotiate further given he has the support of other unions as well as employers groups. However, there is room for “fine tuning” today and tomorrow. The CGIL union has called for an eight-hour general strike with more to follow.