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1st Mar 2024

Cyprus leaves EU ministers red-faced on Belarus

  • EU ministers to meet after sixth weekend of violent arrests in Belarus (Photo: Natalia Rak/Flickr)

EU foreign ministers will have nothing to show Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya when they meet her in Brussels on Monday (21 September), as Cyprus continues to block sanctions.

Tikhanovskaya is to have breakfast with the bloc's 27 top diplomats, before they leave her to hold formal deliberations in the EU Council.

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The formal EU talks will see ministers discuss the crisis in Belarus, where regime goons beat and jailed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters for the sixth weekend in a row.

They will discuss recent Turkish incursions into Cypriot and Greek-claimed waters.

They will also discuss EU-Russia relations in the light of Russia's alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Libya civil war, EU-China ties, EU-Africa Union relations, and how the EU speaks out in multilateral forums.

But they will decide nothing, except, perhaps, to sanction a handful of Libyans for arms smuggling, diplomatic sources said.

EU officials had earlier drawn up a list of some 40 Belarusian names to hit with visa-bans and asset-freezes on Monday.

But Cyprus is vetoing the move until the EU agrees to also punish Turkey.

An 11th-hour meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels on Friday evening failed to break the deadlock.

And by Sunday, diplomats admitted it would be too late for the foreign ministers to do anything about it.

"It will have to be decided at the summit," one EU contact told EUobserver on Sunday, referring to an EU leaders' meeting due on Thursday and Friday.

"Procedure-wise, [the Belarus sanctions decision is] most likely for the summit," a second EU source said.

Cyprus has struggled to get its way on Turkey sanctions because several states, led by Germany, believe in a more delicate approach amid concern over a potential military clash in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Cypriot veto is not the first time a lone EU state has held the rest hostage over national interests.

Back in 2006, for instance, Italy held up EU sanctions on Belarus because it wanted backing for anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese shoe imports.

More recently, Hungary has tried to quash all EU criticism of Israel in order to curry favour with Tel Aviv.

The Belarus deadlock has redoubled talk of replacing unanimity with majority-voting in EU foreign policy-making.

But some EU capitals remain wary of the change.

"If the EU tries to do foreign policy while ignoring the vital concerns of smaller countries, it will lead to a dangerous build-up of alienation and resentment in the long term," a diplomat from a small member state said.

Decision-making protocols aside, the EU also faces other complications on sanctions.

It is planning to blacklist Navalny's alleged poisoners using special anti-chemical weapons measures.

But the evidence on which such sanctions are based might need to be made public, meaning that they cannot be based on sensitive intelligence.

"We're looking at various options, but we can't base it on five-eye intelligence," an EU source said, referring to the Western club of five intelligence-sharing states - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and US.

"So, for the time being, all we can do is say how frightening Russia's behaviour has become," the source added.

Meanwhile, Belarus and Russia, over the weekend, criticised Tikhanovskaya's invitation to Brussels as Western "interference" in Belarus' internal affairs.

The Belarusian foreign minister also threatened counter-sanctions against the EU, including expulsion of foreign media from his country, if the bloc ever imposed its blacklist in the end.

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