The European Union is to impose sanctions on Belarusian leaders implicated in a crackdown on protesters following a disputed election, after member states broke a diplomatic deadlock over the issue by putting Turkey on notice in the early hours of Friday.
To clinch the deal, the 27 member states agreed that they would also punish Ankara if it continues drilling for oil and gas in disputed waters of the Mediterranean, a reassurance to Cyprus that had blocked sanctions on Belarus unless Ankara was similarly rapped.
“The European Union is taking action against those who stand in the way of democracy,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel after the European Council talks ran late into the night. “I think that is an important signal.”
Pro-democracy protesters had appealed directly to European leaders to act against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, and breaking the impasse was seen as a test of the EU’s ability to act on foreign policy issues after Britain and Canada acted more swiftly to punish Minsk.
The sanctions will apply to about 40 Belarusian officials who are accused of helping to rig the August election and a wave of repression against protesters who have filled the streets in weekly protests calling for Mr Lukashenko to cede power.
The weeks of delay in reaching the decision has fuelled debate about whether the requirement for unanimity among EU member states should be dropped on foreign policy or human rights issues.
Mr Lukashenko himself will not be on the blacklist, which will be formally introduced on Friday, as EU leaders reconvene to discuss the economic strategy of the bloc and hear an update on talks with Britain from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, part of a packed summit agenda as leaders confront a list of issues delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Split on Turkey
The debate between EU leaders revealed a split on attitudes towards Turkey, with Cyprus and Greece calling for a sterner reaction to Ankara’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of gas resources, involvement in regional conflicts and slide towards authoritarianism.
But states including Germany are cautious of a heavy-handed approach, viewing the Nato member and EU candidate country as a partner that must inevitably be dealt with for geographic and strategic reasons, not least for its influence on migration flows into the bloc.
The EU has offered eased trade and visa policy towards Turkey as an incentive to bring President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a constructive political dialogue, in what European Council president Charles Michel described it as a “double strategy” of carrot and stick.
“It was the most that Merkel would bear,” an EU diplomat said after the talks. “She felt the Union should give Turkey a chance for another few weeks. But Turkey has been put on notice and the ball is in its court.”