European foreign ministers have failed to break the deadlock over sanctions on Belarus, after Cyprus blocked the plan citing the lack of EU action against Turkey.
Nearly one month after the EU took a political decision to sanction Belarusian officials accused of falsifying the 9 August presidential poll and orchestrating a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, the bloc failed to agree the legal text.
“It’s not a secret for anyone that we don’t have unanimity because one country has not participated in the consensus,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told journalists, adding that he hoped to see agreement at the next EU foreign ministers’ meeting on 12 October. “I understand perfectly that our credibility is at stake.”
For that to happen, EU leaders meeting at a summit later this week will have to untangle the two unrelated foreign policy problems on the EU’s doorstep.
While there is widespread support for sanctions on Belarus, some countries are reluctant to impose restrictive measures on Turkey, as they seek to dial down the dispute with a Nato member that is also hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
“This is a high-voltage political problem that the European council will have to be solve,” Borrell said.
Cyprus, with just 0.2% of the EU population, denies wielding a veto.
The Cypriot foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides, said: “Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent.”
A Cypriot diplomat said it was “unfair” to blame Cyprus, adding that Nicosia had submitted a list of Turkish officials and entities to hit with EU sanctions on 18 June, but had yet to see a response. Cyprus says it supports sanctions on Belarus, but argues that the EU had promised parallel action against Turkey.
Other EU member states, however, have voiced dismay and anger at the Cypriot move. One diplomat accused Cyprus of “effectively shield[ing] the Lukashenko regime from the consequences of its undemocratic and oppressive behaviour”.
Officials have drawn up a list of 40 Belarusian officials that would face asset freezes and travel bans over their role in running the presidential elections and subsequent crackdown. The list does not include Alexander Lukashenko, despite calls by the European parliament to include the strongman leader, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. Borrell said Lukashenko’s inclusion was still being discussed.
Earlier in the day, EU foreign ministers met Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, who is leading the call for new elections. The teacher-turned-politician, told journalists she had urged ministers to “be more brave in their decisions”.
“Sanctions are very important in our fight, because sanctions are part of pressure that will force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us,” she said.
Speaking to the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tikhanovskaya showed MEPs a photograph of a man with large bruises and bloody welts on his back, telling them that peaceful protesters had been “tortured, harassed and raped [and] some of them were killed” in state prisons.
The deadlock over Belarus sanctions – following weeks of grand declarations that the EU was on the side of the Belarusian people – has reignited the debate over scrapping foreign policy vetoes.
Last week the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, called for an end to the unanimity rule in EU foreign policy on human rights and sanctions. But national governments have traditionally resisted any move to qualified-majority voting in foreign policy, fearing being outvoted on vital national interests.