Belarus: time to rethink EU foreign policy making

Events surrounding the protests in Belarus have shown that if the EU is to be a credible player in global politics, it needs to begin with reforms at home, argues Urmas Paet.
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By Urmas Paet

Urmas Paet (Renew, EE) is the Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs

22 Oct 2020

Finally, the leaders of the European Union have agreed on joint sanctions against Lukashenko’s henchmen. This crucial, and long awaited, move also sends a signal of support to the Belarusian people and the political opposition, who have been protesting on the streets for two months to demonstrate their desire for a democratic future.

However, it was disappointing that Lukashenko himself, who is responsible for stealing the presidential elections from the Belarusian people and for using violence to silence the protesters, was not on the initial list but added later on instead. This made the EU seem weak. In the bigger picture, it is even more problematic that the EU’s policy towards Belarus became the hostage of Cyprus’ concerns over Turkey.

It was clear for some time that the EU Member States had agreed to impose sanctions on the Belarusian regime, with the exception of Cyprus, which was blocking this decision. O­fficially, Cyprus’s line for not allowing these sanctions was that it also wanted restrictions on Turkish leaders. Thus - strange as it may seem - EU policy towards Belarus became entangled with Cypriot concerns over Turkey.

Because of this, it took the EU almost two months to agree on Belarus sanctions, which was clearly too long. These events highlight a number of issues. The situation shows how, even in seemingly clear and simple EU foreign policy decisions, other unrelated issues come into play. The result is that there is no decision making and the EU’s authority suffers.

For some time now, we have debated in the EU as to whether all foreign policy decisions should still be made by consensus, or whether it would make sense to move - in certain cases - to qualified majority voting. As the situation with the Belarusian regime made clear, the search for consensus meant that no decisions at all were taken.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking, the EU’s credibility kept declining and Lukashenko continued to rule Belarus with his repressive methods. Such procrastination and ambiguity does not contribute to the EU’s foreign policy credibility, nor does it send a clear message of support to the democratic opposition in Belarus. Furthermore, based on the example of Belarus, we can see that the existence of a right of veto by Member States on every issue may not always contribute to a functioning EU foreign policy.

The same goes for the EU sanctions against Russia, which need to be extended every six months. It only takes one Member State to say that it does not agree with the sanctions any longer and they will not be renewed, despite the fact that the situation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine remains unchanged.

“If we are not able to maintain a successful foreign policy in our own back yard, we also should not expect it to be successful globally”

If we are serious about the EU becoming a stronger geopolitical player in the world, we cannot allow ourselves such hesitation when making foreign policy decisions, particularly when it comes to protecting human rights, democracy and international law.

In addition, we must keep in mind that if we are not able to maintain a successful foreign policy in our own back yard, we also should not expect it to be successful globally.

Therefore, it is time for the EU to turn a new page and no longer seek consensus on human rights issues. Otherwise, unfortunately, as we are seeing now, we risk shooting ourselves in the foot.

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