EU Leaders Seek End to Embarrassing Belarus Sanctions Clash

October 2, 2020 Updated: October 2, 2020

BRUSSELS—European Union leaders sought on Oct. 1 to end an embarrassing standoff that prevents them from imposing sanctions on senior officials in Belarus who stand accused of falsifying presidential election results and leading a clampdown on peaceful protesters.

All EU member countries reject the result of the Aug. 9 election that allowed Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to extend his 26 years in office. EU members want a new election and agree that sanctions should be slapped on dozens of officials, perhaps even the leader once dubbed Europe’s last dictator.

But Cyprus, one of the EU’s smallest member countries, is vetoing the move. It is demanding that its partners in the world’s biggest trading bloc also take action against Turkey for its energy exploration work in disputed waters off the island nation’s coast.

After European foreign ministers failed to break the deadlock in August, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned that “our credibility is at stake,” if the bloc cannot forge a common foreign policy among 27 countries.

“It is bad that we cannot make it work,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Oct. 1.

“It is of major importance we agree on Belarus sanctions. There is a wide-ranging agreement on that. A link between Belarus and Turkey is political only, and has no explanation when we assess the facts.

“What we need to achieve in the coming hours is a decoupling, while we have to recognize there are legitimate concerns about Turkey.”

Ahead of the two-day summit, diplomats said an accommodation might be found. The leaders were holding wide-ranging talks about the EU’s troubled ties with Turkey over its drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, its roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and as a source of migrants trying to reach Europe.

Cyprus could be appeased if its partners underline their support in the final summit communique, or in a special statement from European Council President Charles Michel, who is chairing the two-day meeting. The leaders could then give a green light to sanctions against dozens of Belarus officials.

That would allow national envoys to quickly enact the sanctions in the coming days, the EU diplomats said.

French President Emmanuel Macron was staunch in his support, saying that “solidarity is non-negotiable” when it comes to Cyprus, but also to Greece in its long-running dispute with Turkey.

“When a European Union member state is attacked, threatened, when its territorial waters are not respected, it’s the duty of Europeans to show their solidarity,” Macron said.

In a televised address marking the 60th anniversary of Cyprus’s independence, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades expressed on Oct. 1 his “sincere gratitude to all European Union member states for their staunch support and solidarity in light of Turkey’s provocations.”

But Anastasiades said he wants the leaders to take “a more tangible and effective stance to bring about an end to gunboat diplomacy and for the crisis to be succeeded by dialogue or recourse to the international court on the basis of international law and the law of the sea.”

Making the same point, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “The time has come for Europe to discuss with courage and honesty what kind of relationship it truly wants to have with Turkey. One thing is certain: Turkish provocation, whether this is expressed through unilateral actions or extreme rhetoric, can no longer be tolerated.”

In Ankara, meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described his country’s operations in the eastern Mediterranean as its most important “naval struggle of the past few centuries.”

During a speech in parliament, Erdogan said the EU had turned into an “ineffective, horizonless, and shallow” structure and become a “slave to the conceit” of Greece and Cyprus. However, he also said that Turkey is committed to resolving disputes through dialogue.

In a draft of the final summit statement, seen by The Associated Press, the leaders say the EU “fully supports the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their President through new free and fair elections, without external interference.”

They call “on the Belarusian authorities to end violence and repression, release all detainees and political prisoners, respect media freedom and civil society, and start an inclusive national dialogue.” In the document, they agree “that restrictive measures should be imposed” on Belarus officials.

The dispute shines a spotlight on troubling old questions about the EU’s ability to act quickly and with one voice. The leaders will also discuss ties with China, but here, too, they are divided on how to approach a country that is a major trading partner yet poses serious economic and political challenges.

By Lorne Cook