President von der Leyen calls for sanctions on Belarus

People take part in a protest rally against official results of the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, 13 August 2020. [Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA]

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen joined on Friday (14 August) a growing chorus calling for sanctions on Belarus where security forces cracked down on protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko claiming victory in a disputed election.

Von der Leyen spoke ahead of emergency talks between the EU’s foreign ministers later on Friday on applying such sanctions, which would require unanimity among the 27 countries in the bloc.

“We need additional sanctions against those who violated democratic values or abused human rights in Belarus,” Commission president said on Twitter.

“I am confident today’s EU Foreign Ministers’ discussion will demonstrate our strong support for the rights of the people in Belarus to fundamental freedoms and democracy,” she added.

Tens of thousands rally in Belarus against post-vote crackdown

Tens of thousands of Belarusians staged a wave of peaceful protests on Thursday (13 August) against President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election and an ensuing brutal police crackdown.

EU readies Belarus sanctions

The EU Foreign Affairs ministers meeting on Friday afternoon are expected to begin the process of imposing sanctions on Belarus and express its support for Greece and Cyprus in their stand-off with Turkey.

Foreign ministers from the 27 member states will join a hastily-arranged video conference hosted by Brussels’ diplomatic chief Josep Borrell.

Following von der Leyen call for action, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Chancellor Angela Merkel had been “shocked” by the detention and abuse of peaceful protesters.

“In our view sanctions against those responsible for human rights violations will have to be discussed,” he said.

The council had not been due to meet until talks in Berlin on August 27, but both crises are coming to a head, and several ministers are cutting into their summer break.

The EU has declared the situation in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has launched a crackdown on protests after his disputed re-election, a “matter of grave concern”.

But this does not go far enough for many members, especially Belarus’ neighbours Poland and Lithuania, which is now hosting exiled opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Poland, Latvia and Lithuania say they are ready to act as mediators to try to resolve the post-election crisis, after a poll that Brussels has said was “neither free nor fair”.

But the ministers will also consider targeted sanctions, beyond the existing ban on sales to Belarus of arms and equipment that can be used in repression.

Russia has implicitly criticised the EU response, denouncing what its foreign ministry spokeswoman called “clear attempts at outside interference… aimed at causing a split in society and destabilising the situation”.

But Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a call with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis that Minsk is ready “for a constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners”.

Belarus starts to release prisoners as EU weighs sanctions

Belarusian authorities on Thursday (13 August) began releasing some of the thousands of people detained in a crackdown by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko that has prompted the European Union to consider imposing sanctions.

Mediterranean tensions

The soaring tensions in the eastern Mediterranean will also be high on the agenda after France dispatched naval vessels and jet fighters to back up Greece and Cyprus.

Longstanding tension between Turkey and EU member state Greece escalated when Ankara resumed energy exploration in the region off the Greek island of Kastellorizo on Monday.

Turkey has dispatched the research ship Oruc Reis accompanied by naval vessels, prompting Greece to send its own ships to the area to monitor Turkey’s work.

Brussels will be keen to show a united front at Friday’s talks, but members will be cautious in dealing with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mounting adrenaline

“We’re clearly on course to prepare sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, but it will be more complicated with Turkey,” a European diplomat told AFP.

“With Turkey, we’ll have to go through a phase of mounting adrenaline to force Erdogan to come to the table.”

Erdogan spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU chief Charles Michel on Thursday and hit out at France’s President Emmanuel Macron, accusing him of “putting on a show”.

A European official told AFP that Merkel had warned Erdogan in July that Turkey would face EU sanctions if it drills in Cypriot waters or off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

On Thursday (13 August), Michel underlined EU solidarity with member states Greece and Cyprus and urged Erdogan to “de-escalate tensions and avoid provocations”.

Borrell has been tasked with drawing up economic measures to take against Turkey. These are expected to be ready by the ministers’ face-to-face Berlin meeting later this month.

No decisions are expected at Friday’s virtual get together, but diplomats expect the ministers to form working groups to accelerate preparations for concrete action.

If the member states give unanimous support to sanctions they could be adopted when EU leaders hold their next summit on September 24 and 25.

Foreign policy will dominate this event, with how to react to China’s imposition of new national security law in Hong Kong also on the table.

Macron: France to bolster Mediterranean military presence over Turkish prospecting

France will increase its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday (12 August), calling on Turkey to halt oil and gas exploration in disputed waters that has heightened tensions with Greece.

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