EU summit hijacked by Belarus – POLITICO



EU heads of state and government were supposed to spend a summit dinner contemplating relations with their two most important and nettlesome neighbors: Britain and Russia.

Instead, the 27 leaders were baited into focusing attention on Belarus, a country of minimal strategic or economic importance, led for the past 27 years by Alexander Lukashenko — a man denigrated on Sunday as a “tin-horned dictator” by Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski.

Call it the Minsk Process, European Council edition: a tortured diplomatic undertaking with an uncertain outcome that only emphasized the EU’s struggle for relevance in foreign policy.

Lukashenko’s brazen interception and forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet, in order to arrest an opposition activist on board, highlighted his utter disregard for the EU and its member countries, and his confidence in the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

EU leaders manufactured a veneer of toughness by adopting summit conclusions calling for an array of new punitive measures, including economic sanctions on individuals and entities, as well as targeted sanctions that could hit swaths of the Belarusian economy.  

Leaders demanded the immediate release of the opposition activist, Roman Protasevich, and his companion Sofia Sapega, as well as an “urgent” investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

But in a further sign of defiance, just as the summit was getting underway, Belarus released a video of Protasevich making what appeared to be a forced confession to organizing mass protests.

The leaders also directed the Council of the EU to adopt measures barring Belarusian aircraft from flying in EU airspace or accessing EU airports — a move that is likely to draw retaliation and cause major travel obstacles, including for Belarusians suffering under Lukashenko’s rule.

But many details remain to be worked out, and it was far from clear that the end result would do anything to alter the behavior of Lukashenko, who has weathered EU penalties for years, including a raft of measures tied to last summer’s fraudulent presidential election.

Cacophony of condemnation

Throughout Monday, EU leaders denounced the interference with the flight taking passengers from one EU capital, Athens, to another, Vilnius. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “unacceptable.” Council President Charles Michel called it “unacceptable, shocking and scandalous.”

Belarus moved to the top of the agenda. And leaders’ conclusions on Russia — intended as a sharp message to Moscow by condemning “the illegal and provocative Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond” — were relegated to an after-thought.

Moreover, a request by leaders for the European Commission to prepare a report on Russia relations seemed to pale in comparison to the news earlier on Monday that Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden would hold a summit meeting next month in Switzerland.

In a joint statement on Monday, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Russia’s security council secretary, Nikolay Patrushev, said: “The sides agreed that a normalization of U.S.-Russian relations would be in the interest of both countries and contribute to global predictability and stability.”

The Kremlin, for its part, seized on the criticism of Belarus to accuse Western capitals of hypocrisy, pointing to forced landings of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in 2013, when U.S. authorities thought Edward Snowden was on board, and of a Belarusian passenger jet in 2016 shortly after take-off from Kyiv, so Ukraine could arrest a passenger.

“What’s shocking is that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace shocking,” the chief spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, wrote in a scathing post on Facebook.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government did not view the incident as an urgent matter, even though Sapega, Protasevich’s companion, is a Russian citizen.

“We should look into the issue, but without a rush,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Sochi, where he had met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.

At a news conference shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday, Michel accused Belarus of “playing Russian roulette” with the lives of innocent civilians. It was unclear if he intended a pun. Von der Leyen called the incident “an attack on European sovereignty.”

But for all the hot rhetoric, the EU has struggled to make itself heard in the international arena.

The punitive measures against Belarus over last summer’s election were adopted only after a protracted three-month delay, in which Cyprus withheld its backing in order to pressure fellow EU countries to take a tougher line on Turkey.

Turkey, for its part, has largely ignored EU demands regarding its maritime operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU has consistently struggled to answer Russia’s malign activity. And last week, EU countries failed to reach a unified position on the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, illustrating Brussels’ limited influence in the Middle East.

In the end, the leaders adopted their conclusions on Russia, and some diplomats said the incident with the plane had hardened some views toward Putin, who has expressed unwavering support for Lukashenko.

At the news conference, Michel insisted that EU leaders had a “fruitful” conversation about relations with Russia and made strong progress. “The next step will be the report that will be prepared by the Commission and the high representative,” he said.

At the urging of more hawkish countries, leaders adjusted their conclusions slightly to stress it should be a report “with policy options” — a subtle opening for the Commission to propose sanctions or other measures to increase pressure on Moscow.

The leaders also adopted conclusions calling for faithful upholding of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the subsequent Trade Cooperation Agreement with the U.K.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Hans von der Burchard, Rym Momtaz and Nektaria Stamouli contributed reporting.



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