Angela Merkel has announced plans to meet the Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as EU leaders gathering at a Brussels summit seek to untangle a dispute that has delayed sanctions against Belarus’s authoritarian government.
In a speech in the Bundestag on Wednesday, the German chancellor expressed her admiration for the women protesting against the Belarusian regime. “If you see the courage of the women on display in the streets there, for a life of freedom and free of corruption, then I can only say, ‘I admire that,’” she said.
Merkel reiterated that her government did not recognise Alexander Lukashenko’s claimed electoral victory, calling on the Belarusian president to “enter a dialogue with his people, without interference from east or west”.
Merkel’s meeting with Tikhanovskaya, scheduled for next Tuesday in Berlin, comes after Emmanuel Macron met her two days ago in Vilnius. The French president has since urged Vladimir Putin to talk to Tikhanosvskaya. “President Macron … recalled that she was open to dialogue with Russia and encouraged President Putin to take it into consideration,” his office said on Thursday after a call between the two men.
Merkel and Macron are taking part in a summit of EU leaders on Thursday, largely devoted to foreign policy crises neglected during the coronavirus pandemic. A dinner debate on EU relations with Turkey could be overshadowed by the bloc’s failure to agree sanctions against Belarus earlier this month.
Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, said it was “just inappropriate” that the EU had failed to agree sanctions one and a half months after its 27 leaders had promised restrictive measures against officials responsible for vote rigging and the repression of peaceful protests.
“The situation in Belarus is deteriorating. We have continuing violations of human rights, we have detained people, tortured people,” Nausėda said, adding that Lukashenko was not ready to enter talks with civil society. “In this situation, I think the European Union should do much more.”
According to a leaked summit communique, EU leaders will declare their full support for “the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their president through new free and fair elections without external interference”.
Officials are conscious, however, that without sanctions such declarations may sound hollow. Recent decisions by the British and Canadian governments to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials have further exposed the EU’s delay.
“People are really losing patience. People really don’t appreciate this political hostage-taking,” said a senior EU diplomat. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, could overrule Cyprus by turning to a little known provision in the Belarus sanctions law that allows a qualified majority vote, they said. Another diplomatic source said the plan was still to seek unanimity among the 27 member states.
Arriving at the summit, Borrell said he hoped that EU leaders would be able to “overcome the difficulties in order to have the required unanimity”.
As talks began, it was unclear whether the Cypriot president, Nikos Anastasiades, was ready to lift his objections. Cyprus has accused the rest of the EU of dragging its feet over fresh sanctions against Turkey. Nicosia proposed in June a list of Turkish officials and organisations it said should be subject to EU travel bans and asset freezes.
While the European council president, Charles Michel, said “all options remain on the table”, there is almost no appetite for new sanctions on Turkey.
Germany, which has been mediating between Athens, Nicosia and Ankara, wants the EU to take a broader look at its relations with Turkey, a Nato ally that hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Echoing this view, Borrell said the EU was at a watershed moment with Turkey. “We have to decide the future of our relationship with Turkey, trying to avoid escalation of the conflict on the delimitation of waters and taking into account the relationship we have with Turkey from many points of view,” he said.
Macron struck a different tone, calling for a “demanding dialogue” with Ankara. “When an EU member state is attacked, threatened while its territorial waters are not respected, it is the duty of Europeans to show solidarity. And we are going to reiterate our support to Greece and Cyprus,” he said.
The Belarus hold-up has reopened the debate about abolishing EU foreign policy vetoes. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for the end of unanimity votes on sanctions and human rights statements, but the former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, who will chair the two-day summit, spoke out this week against such a move. He acknowledged that unanimity “slows down and sometimes even prevents decision-making”, but said it promoted “a lasting commitment” to the strategies from all member states.