Theresa May has confirmed she shared UK intelligence on the Salisbury nerve agent attack with EU allies before they issued a joint statement blaming Russia for the outrage.
The Prime Minister won the backing of EU leaders for Britain’s assessment that the only “plausible explanation” for the March 4 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was that Russia was responsible.
In a further development it emerged the European Union was recalling its ambassador to Moscow “for consultations”, although the move was not a formal sanction.
Ireland and Lithuania confirmed they were considering following the UK’s lead and expelling Russian diplomats, while France, Poland, Estonia and Latvia were reported to be mulling a similar move.
Meanwhile, British diplomats ordered out of Russia, in a tit-for-tat retaliation for Britain’s expulsion of 23 suspected spies, have started heading back to the UK.
A convoy of minivans left the British embassy in Moscow on Friday as the deadline for the expulsions was reached.
In a joint statement issued at the European Council summit in Brussels, EU leaders offered “unqualified solidarity” with the UK and said they shared its assessment that Russia was “highly likely” to be culpable.
They said they would “co-ordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities”.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said a “security assessment” would be conducted in the coming days, with a decision early next week on possible “individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland”.
He stressed that any action would be targeted at individuals believed to be involved in suspect activities, saying: “We are not going to randomly expel people who are genuine diplomats.”
The EU’s External Action Service said the head of the EU Delegation in the Russian Federation had been recalled to Brussels for “consultations” with high representative Federica Mogherini.
Mrs May earlier set out a detailed account of the evidence against the Kremlin in a private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, followed by an address to fellow leaders over dinner.
Asked whether she had relied on UK intelligence information to convince EU partners, the PM said: “We have been throughout sharing on intelligence channels what intelligence we can share with our colleagues.
“What is crucial is that there was recognition around the table last night about the threat that Russia poses.”
She added: “The threat from Russia is one that respects no borders.
“I think it is clear that Russia is challenging the values we share as Europeans, and it is right that we are standing together in defence of those values.”
Thursday night’s joint statement represented a significant hardening of EU backing for Britain’s confrontation with the Kremlin.
On Monday foreign ministers of the 28-nation bloc had issued a statement voicing solidarity with the UK, but stopping short of blaming Moscow.
Earlier on Thursday, it was announced that the police officer exposed to the Novichok nerve agent had been discharged from hospital.
In a statement Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey said he had been “overwhelmed” by messages of support, but acknowledged: “Normal life for me will probably never be the same.”
Meanwhile a Court of Protection judge has given doctors permission to take blood from the Skripals – who remain in a critical condition in hospital – and to provide samples to chemical weapons experts.
Mr Justice Williams said he had been asked to make decisions because Mr and Ms Skripal were unconscious and therefore unable to give their consent to blood samples being taken or tested.
Russia’s ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko sent his well wishes to those directly affected by the use of the nerve agent in Salisbury.
“Glad to know that detective sergeant Nick Bailey has been discharged from hospital. Hoping for recovery of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, too,” he wrote on Twitter.