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Cyprus blocks Belarus sanctions as EU foreign policy arenas collide

On Monday, EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, meeting in Brussels, were unable to reach a decision on sanctions to place on Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus, where Cyprus refused to sign-up unless sanctions were also placed on Turkey. Cyprus, Greece as well as France have been having ongoing issues in the Eastern Mediterranean with Turkey over underwater oil and gas drilling rights and the delimitation of international maritime borders. With other member states unprepared to link the two foreign policy issues, EU foreign ministers were unable to come to an agreement on Belarus. Protests have been ongoing for 6 weeks in the eastern European country, following the disputed August Presidential election, won by President Lukashenko but the results of which have not been recognised by the EU due to severe electoral irregularities and the locking-up and attacking of opposition candidates and their respective supporters.

Indeed, as evidence of failure to reach a decision on Belarus became apparent, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Linas Linkevicius tweeted his displeasure at the outcome, saying that it “undermined the credibility of democratic values”. Lithuania, a neighbour of Belarus, has been housing Belarussian opposition leaders. The Chair of the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee – and potential Chancellor-candidate to succeed Angela Merkel, Norbert Röttgen, also took to social media saying that Cyprus’s position was embarrassing and hoped that EU-leaders, meeting for a special European Council later this week would be unable to unblock the situation.

German media had reported earlier in the day, without going into the specifics, that a majority of Foreign Affairs Ministers had been in favour of adding Lukashenko personally to the draft sanctions list but Cyprus’s decision means that it will be for the European Council later this week to try to break the impasse. Foreign Ministers were, at least, able to agree to the extension of sanctions on Libya where the EU has not been unified. Whilst the EU has backed the UN-supported Government of National Accord, France has thrown its weight behind General Haftar, whose forces have been occupying the east of the war-torn country.

Nevertheless, the main headline from today’s meeting will be that the EU failed to reach a common position on Belarus. Last week, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, had even suggested that member state move to a majority-voting when it comes to sanctions but ultimately this is something which the member states themselves would have to decide. There is nothing stopping member states unilaterally imposing sanctions on Lukashenko but doing this on-bloc would send a stronger message.

The fact that the decision on Belarus has been kicked upstairs to the level of Heads of Government does not in itself guarantee that solution will be reached. When the European Council President called this special European Council summit, at the time the aim – at least on foreign policy issues - was to focus on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. With this in mind, it may well be that in the end, Cyprus backs down, if it can achieve some tough language on Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Emmanuel Macron, might emerge as a possible deal-breaker here, where Franco-Turkish relations at the moment, at least at the political level, are poor with France coming up against Turkey not only on the issue of gas exploration but also in Libya, too.

Ultimately, all eyes will be on what language emerges from the European Council later this week. If the impasse can be breached then this offers EU leaders the opportunity to match their tough rhetoric on Belarus so far, with concrete, tangible actions. Both the Eastern Mediterranean issue and Belarus are areas where the EU needs to be able to speak with one voice if it wants to be influential in its own backyard. A failure to reach a common position on these points is not going to help it if it wishes to have an impact on the ground.


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