BBC News
Mark Mardell
October 26, 2007

“If nobody is held responsible, it will happen again, I am absolutely sure.”

The rather chilling words of Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the man apparently murdered by poisoning with a rare artificial radioactive element in a London hotel.

She is in Lisbon because the European Union’s leaders are meeting President Putin for a regular summit.

At the moment, there are no plans to raise this case, but just to talk in general terms about human rights.

Mrs Litvinenko says it’s not a matter of human rights, but of European safety, and the EU should give formal backing to the British position.

One voice

The best the European Commission hopes for from this meeting is to get it over without any real rows, and without rocking the boat.

Throughout my trip to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland I heard the same refrain: Europe must speak with one voice.

In Gdansk, the grand old man who helped bring communism to its knees, Lech Walesa – surrounded by pictures of himself with the last pope, a cruxifix on the wall over his shoulder – told me he was in no doubt how to deal with Russia: “solidarity”.

Europe had a single interest, and yes it should speak with one voice, he said.

Curiously, for an organisation that’s often thought to lack clout, the European Union does matter to Russia.

When, a few months ago, EU foreign ministers issued a statement backing Britain’s demand to extradite the man suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian response was swift and furious. This was a matter between Britain and Russia. If the EU raised it again there would be consequences.

Locked wardrobes

One Western diplomat said, “They wanted to lock this case in a wardrobe marked ‘UK’.” Indeed, the Russians have lots of wardrobes for lots of issues, from the ban on Polish meat to Estonia’s treatment of its Russian minority.

The Russian ambassador to the European Union, with his curly grey hair and mischievous smile, seems an avuncular teddy-bear of a man. Only when he speaks do you get a hint the bear may have claws of steel.

He told me, talking about the Baltics not Britain, that the European Union hindered bilateral relationships.

Indeed the EU’s principle of – here he used Lech Walesa’s favourite word – solidarity, hindered good relations with the EU itself.

President Putin is now in Portugal, and I wonder whether it was any coincidence that just before he arrived he talked on the phone about a juicy energy deal to the prime minister of Norway, a country resolutely outside the European Union?

Great power aspirations

But why does Russia bother?

One diplomat told me the Russians saw themselves as a great power, the equal of big international organisations like Nato and the EU. They’re also desperate to join the World Trade Organisation. This where they want high business to take place – other, lesser nations would be bought or bullied with oil or trade, the diplomat said.

Well, perhaps the EU is not so different to a country, at least in that respect.

The leaders hear are anxious not to rock the boat, and want to emerge from this summit without any major disagreements.

In this case the EU carries a fairly big stick, but will probably choose to speak softly rather than use it.