Global Europe Brief: Belarus to remain in the Eastern Partnership?

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a carefully crafted political format meant to boost ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbours Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

However, next time EU leaders meet with their counterparts from EaP, “probably, their number will be a bit lower”, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša told Brussels reporters visiting his country as Ljubljana began its six-month stint at the EU’s helm.

“Probably” is doing a lot of work there.

Earlier this week, Belarus said it was suspending its participation in the initiative, a move condemned by Brussels as “another step backwards” after the skyjacking of a European Ryanair flight last month.

The suspension comes a few months before this year’s EU-Eastern Partnership summit is to be held, under the auspices of Slovenia’s EU Council presidency in December.

Some diplomats in Brussels and beyond have been suggesting that an idea worth exploring is whether it might be possible to instead include Belarus’ anti-Lukashenko opposition in the summit, to send a signal of support to democratic Belarus.

One of the advocates of this idea, Lithuania’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mantas Adomėnas, told EURACTIV: “The decision to suspend Belarus’ participation at Eastern Partnership was adopted by the illegitimate president, not by Belarussians. Belarus should be represented by the representatives of democratic civil society”.

Asked whether the EU is considering such an option, the EU’s chief foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said such a decision will be taken “closer to the event”.

“Within the Eastern Partnership multilateral framework, and with the exception of institutions responsible for violations and abuses of human rights, we will maintain cooperation with Belarus at non-political level, and intensify cooperation with key non–state Belarusian stakeholders,” Stano added.

Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Belarus’ opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, told EURACTIV that the autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko “doesn’t have the legitimacy and power to suspend Belarus membership in the Eastern Partnership, Belarusian people and all democratic forces are interested to continue the EaP programme on all levels”.

Tikhanouskaya’s team has already discussed the summit with the European Commission, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi and with EU leaders and is pushing for the exiled leader to participate “on behalf of Belarusian people”, considering participation in either in an official capacity or in the form of a high-level summit event.

The former option would be unprecedented, as it would see the EU de facto recognise Tikhanouskaya as head of state although she has never held elected office prior to last year’s elections, widely believed to be have been rigged by Lukashenko’s regime and therefore not recognised by the EU.

Experts stress it will be important to see how the EU-Eastern Partnership will react to the Belarusian demarche.

“The EU has no other alternatives here, except to increase assistance to the civil society of Belarus, independent media, help victims of repression and, at the same time, put pressure on the regime,” Pavel Slunkin, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told EURACTIV.

Slunkin, however, also said that following the logic of not recognising the result of the presidential election and the legitimacy of Lukashenko, the current Belarusian authorities cannot reflect the opinion of the Belarusian people.

“The refusal of the Belarusian authorities to participate in the Eastern Partnership should not deprive the Belarusians of such an opportunity – and in this case, the invitation of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is already holding meetings with European leaders at the highest level, looks not only symbolic but also quite appropriate and logical,” he added.

The Eastern Partnership region  has been burning for quite a while already, destabilised by the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, the political crisis in Georgia, and the continued uncertainty caused by the war in Eastern Ukraine.

However, as Brussels movers and shakers like to say, every crisis is an opportunity.

EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is already high on the Slovenian presidency agenda. Janša said that “further steps can be made” towards Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, all three aspiring to join the EU one day.

This less than enthusiastic rhetoric stands in sharp contrast with his view on the Western Balkans EU hopefuls:

“The basic idea of the founding fathers of the EU was Europe, whole and free, at peace. This is still our first goal. We are convinced that the people living in the countries of the Western Balkans deserve a European future, and those who were granted support some two decades ago, are those that need to lend a hand to those countries.”

But does Europe really end on the Balkan peninsula? Geographers would disagree.


EU IN THE WORLD

POST-BREXIT TIES. Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to arrive in London for her swansong UK trip, German and UK foreign ministers this week pledged to cooperate more closely on foreign and security policy issues, reaffirming their commitment to the “strategic unity of Europe”.

According to diplomats, this is the first of three likely bilateral agreements – France and Italy could follow – that London intends to seal with its more heavy-weight European partners.

POST-ARAB SPRING. Ten years after the Arab Spring, the democratic impulse that drove the ousting of regimes appears to be in retreat. Instead, extremist groups, gender-based violence, and high levels of economic and social deprivation, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, threaten much of the Middle East and North Africa.

FFP UPDATE. It is no secret that women are still woefully underrepresented in the world of foreign policy, security, defence and nuclear issues.

A European Parliament Report on Gender Equality in EU’s Foreign and Security Policy was passed last October, which was followed by the European Commission adopting an updated version of the gender action plan. According to the document, 85% of external action projects need to have gender equality as one of their main objectives.

“The plan is a good and ambitious document – but in the past, we have seen many good and ambitious documents that did not change reality,” said MEP Hannah Neumann (Greens), co-rapporteur, speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia.

DEFENCE CORNER

FUND KICK-START. Paradigm shift or baby steps? The European Commission has formally launched an €8 billion European Defence Fund (EDF), a new instrument designed to co-finance collaborative defence research and development projects across the bloc. The idea is to finance defence cooperation projects leading to technological innovations and ‘home-grown’ European systems, both with large companies, small businesses and start-ups.

In what was seen as a difficult birth, EU lawmakers in April had approved the €7.9 billion fund, clearing the way for the bloc’s first-ever dedicated programme for military research. However, a number of ethical questions, including parliamentary control and semi-autonomous weapons systems, remain.

BLACK SEA WOES. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday (30 June) that Russia could have sunk a British warship that, according to Moscow, had illegally entered its territorial waters.

The vessel in question, the HMS Defender – a Type 45 destroyer – is part of the UK Carrier Strike Group currently heading to the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of London’s strategic pivot to the region. It was en route from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to Georgia, sailing off Crimea’s coast, which – classic Russia – sparked tensions between Moscow and London.

The incident went almost unnoticed in most of the EU, gaining a little of traction in the EU countries close to the Black Sea and, understandably, a great deal more in Ukraine. Yet, the EU’s diplomatic gaze seems to be far from those shores, writes Georgi Gotev.

MOZAMBIQUE MISSION. EU ambassadors this week gave the green light to setting up a military mission in Mozambique to help train its armed forces battling jihadists in the north of the country, diplomats said. Former colonial master Portugal is already providing training for Mozambican troops and Lisbon’s military instructors on the ground will make up some half of the new EU mission.

EU foreign ministers are due to formally sign off on the mission at a meeting on 12 July.

AFGHANISTAN EXIT. Germany’s last troops “left Afghanistan safely” on Tuesday after a nearly 20-year deployment in the country, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer confirmed this week. However, questions remain about what follows.

Germany’s contingent, which has been based in northern Afghanistan’s Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, was the second biggest of NATO’s 9,600-strong Resolute Support training and support mission after the US.

SWISS GO US. Switzerland has chosen Lockheed Martin’s F-35’s as its next-generation fighter jet, the government in Bern announced this week, angering opponents who have pledged a new referendum to overturn what they dubbed an unnecessary “Ferrari” option, Reuters reports.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

SKOPJE UPDATE. Portugal’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ana Paula Zacarias, whose country just ended its 6-month stint at the helm of the EU, has voiced hope that Bulgaria’s 11 July parliamentary elections will resolve Bulgaria’s veto of the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks. Croatia, meanwhile, said it supports opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia as soon as possible.

MOVING FREE. Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have called for the free movement of goods, capital, services and people in the region as soon as possible.

EURASIA DIGEST

ELECTORAL REFORM. The Georgian parliament approved amendments to the electoral code earlier this week, a key provision in an EU-brokered political deal meant to resolve the institutional crisis in the South Caucasian country with strong European aspirations.

The move clears a major hurdle in implementing the provisions of the deal mediated by European Council President Charles Michel on 19 April, after the country got stuck in a political crisis, with opposition parties refusing to enter the parliament following the October 2020 general polls, claiming the elections were rigged.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe is slowly moving towards summer break.

  • Berlin Process Summit
    | Monday, 5 July 2021 | Berlin, Germany (virtual)
  • Last European Parliament session before summer break
    | Mo-Thu, 5-8 July 2021 | Strasbourg, France
  • EURACTIV’s Virtual Conference on the Central Asia-South Asia Connectivity Summit
    | Wednesday, 7 July 2021 | Register here
  • New head of EU military training mission takes office
    | Wednesday, 7 July 2021 | Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Three Seas Initiative Forum to discuss energy security 
    | Thursday, 8 July 2021 | Sofia, Bulgaria

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