Belarus cut off from air traffic
When the political will is there, EU states can act quickly, very quickly. Just a day after a Ryanair plane crash landed in Minsk and an opposition member on board was arrested, heads of state and government took action. On Monday evening, they agreed on far-reaching sanctions against the Belarusian regime that overshadow anything that has happened before. The country must be completely cut off from European air traffic. State airline Belavia will lose all landing and overflight rights in member states. EU airlines must avoid Belarusian airspace because it is no longer safe.
And that was not all. EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell must make new proposals without delay on how the regime of leader Alexandr Lukashenko can be affected economically. These are sanctions against certain sectors of the economy. The EU could now target the energy and chemical industries. As the world’s largest exporter of calcium carbonate, the country depends on the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda – and to that extent may be affected. On Monday, the Lithuanian government launched a ban on land transport on its own initiative. EU foreign ministers, who are meeting informally in Lisbon from Wednesday, will discuss concrete measures.
The Council is also expected to soon impose a fourth package of sanctions against the regime, including travel and asset freezes. It has been in the works for weeks; Brussels is talking about the biggest package to date. Since October, member states have imposed punitive measures in three stages, including against the leader himself and his eldest son, Viktor, the national security adviser. Among those affected are other members of the political leadership and government, senior officials of the Interior Ministry and its troops, the President of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly, the Attorney General, several judges. , the president of the state television channel and several key economic players. A total of 88 people and seven organizations are on the sanctions list to date.
Prior to the meeting, Council and Commission lawyers discussed the possibility of withdrawing Belarus’s landing and overflight rights. The result: the actions of the authorities in Minsk constituted a serious violation of the International Convention on Civil Aviation. Although the responsible authority, ICAO in Montreal, must investigate this matter in detail, it would not be possible to wait months for the result. Given the seriousness, immediate and energetic action is needed, he said. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel campaigned in the European Council, without contradiction. Michel spoke of an “international scandal” which could not be tolerated, von der Leyen of a “kidnapping”. There has also been talk of “state terrorism”. It was probably also a matter of dissuading others. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who may have backed the action in Minsk with agents, could also resort to such kidnappings, diplomats have suggested.
The heads of government also spoke of strained relations with Russia. They have been marked by sanctions since the nerve gas attack on Alexei Nawalnyj. Foreign Commissioner Borrell saw the relationship “deep down” when he visited Moscow in early February to probe Russia’s willingness to cooperate. The trip ended with his brutal rejection and the expulsion of diplomats, including a senior representative of the German Embassy in Moscow. The leaders had actually planned to hold a “strategic debate” on their relations with Russia in March, but this was postponed at the time due to more pressing issues. Monday night’s debate – without advisers or cellphones – was the first time in a long time that heads of government have dealt in depth with Moscow.
The decisions were not planned. According to the prepared conclusions, Borrell was to be tasked with presenting a report on the relationship at the next Council meeting in a month’s time. The European Council took a similar approach towards Turkey, where Borrell presented options for additional sanctions and closer cooperation. With Russia, there is a commitment: States remain committed to the five principles they established in the spring of 2016, at the time in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the eastern Ukraine.
To date, the principles describe a minimal consensus between the eastern states which primarily see Moscow as a threat and the western states, including Germany, which continue to seek constructive cooperation with the Kremlin. On the one hand, the economic sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia in 2014 will not be lifted until the 2015 Minsk agreement is fully implemented. This means in particular that Ukraine regains full control of its eastern border and, at the same time, initiates a process of decentralization that allows local self-government and elections in the occupied territories.
On the other hand, “selective cooperation” must remain possible in certain areas. In any case, this applies to the nuclear deal with Iran, whose guarantors are the EU and Russia. It is also undisputed that the country should be closely associated with United Nations climate policy. But beyond that, there is no consensus. Berlin, for example, sees energy policy and Nord Stream 2 as part of selective cooperation, while more and more countries, including France, reject this pipeline.
Heads of government are also yet to decide how to react to the recent escalation between the Czech Republic and Russia. Both sides had expelled most diplomats from the other side after Prague accused Moscow of an explosion in 2014 at an ammunition depot. The European Council condemned Russian actions as “illegal and provocative”, as well as a Russian spy ring in Bulgaria. “The EU will stand united in the face of such acts,” say the conclusions evocatively. But will there be consequences? Heads of government will have to answer this question within one month at the latest.
Provided by Dirk Daniel Mann