EU breaks deadlock to impose Belarus sanctions, Turkey on notice

Cyprus backed plan after EU leaders reassured island with compromise over Turkey’s Mediterranean gas exploration.

The EU reached a compromise with Cyprus enabling it to impose sanctions promised over the Belarus crackdown [John Thys /Pool via Reuters]

European Union leaders broke a diplomatic deadlock on Friday to impose sanctions on Belarus, after reassuring the Republic of Cyprus that the bloc would also punish Turkey if it continued to drill for oil and gas in disputed areas of the Mediterranean.

The deal, hammered out after hours of negotiations, will impose sanctions on about 40 officials accused of rigging August’s presidential election in Belarus although the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is not among those singled out.

“No. Lukashenko is not on the current list, but of course we will follow the situation, we will follow developments,” Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said after meeting EU leaders.

Still, the deal allows the EU to deliver on its promise to support pro-democracy protesters in Belarus’ capital Minsk and regain some credibility after weeks of delays.

“The European Union is taking action against those who stand in the way of democracy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after fraught discussions among the 27 EU member states that dragged past midnight. “I think that is an important signal.”

While Britain and Canada have already announced sanctions, the impasse in the EU, where decisions require unanimity, has dented the credibility of the bloc’s foreign policy, diplomats say.

Two women wave an old Belarusian national flag during opposition rally in the center of Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020.
Sanctions in support of Belarus protesters were delayed by Cyprus, which wanted action against Turkey over its exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean [File: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo]

Cyprus, one of the EU’s smallest countries, had blocked action against Belarus for a month, insisting that sanctions also be imposed on Turkey, which has stepped up oil and gas exploration in disputed areas of the Mediterranean.

After a short war in 1974, the island was split between the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government – an EU member – in the south, and a self-declared Turkish Cypriot administration in the north, which is backed by Turkey.

Germany has pushed back against a tough stand on Turkey, which is both a candidate to join the EU and a member of NATO.

‘Toolbox’ ready

In a sign that the diplomatic standoff is easing – at least between Greece and Turkey – NATO announced on Thursday that the two countries had set up a “military deconfliction mechanism” to avoid accidental clashes at sea.

The compromise struck at the summit that satisfied Cyprus was an agreement to review Turkey’s behaviour in December and impose sanctions if its “provocations” have not stopped.

“In case of such renewed actions by Ankara the EU will use all its instruments and options available,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday after the summit concluded. “We have a toolbox that we can apply immediately.”

“The EU issues a clear threat of sanctions against Turkey should it continue to violate international law,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter after the meeting.

The European Council’s Michel described the approach as a “double strategy” towards Ankara, offering closer relations on trade and other fronts but holding out the threat of sanctions if it fails to de-escalate tensions in the Mediterranean.

“It was the most that Merkel would bear,” said an EU diplomat 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.”