Angela Merkel to meet Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Berlin

By Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

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 and 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 on Belarus earlier this month.

The promised sanctions were blocked by Cyprus, which complained the EU was not doing enough to punish Turkey over its exploration in the contested waters of the eastern Mediterranean. EU officials were unsure whether leaders would be able to resolve this issue. “The intention is indeed to find a solution both on Turkey and Belarus and to find a consensus,” said one official. “We will see if member states are ready to work on that.”

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.

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.