Belarus officials to face EU sanctions but leaders stop short of Lukashenko

By Guardian staff and agencies

European Union leaders agreed early on Friday to impose sanctions on dozens of senior officials in Belarus accused of falsifying presidential election results and leading a crackdown on peaceful protesters, after unblocking a veto by one of the EU’s smallest member countries.

In an embarrassing standoff, Cyprus had insisted that its EU partners take action against Turkey for its energy exploration work in disputed waters off the Mediterranean island nation’s coast before it would agree to the Belarus sanctions.

But after several hours of talks into the night, the leaders agreed on a strong statement of support for Cyprus, as well as for Greece, and a stern warning to Turkey that it could face punitive measures if it continues the undersea drilling work.

“We have decided today to implement the sanctions,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after chairing the summit in Brussels. “It’s very important to do what we decided a few weeks ago,” and to send a signal that “we are credible.”

Michel said that a special written procedure would be launched on Friday to impose sanctions on about 40 Belarus officials.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko “is not on the current list. But we will follow the developments,” Michel said. The leader once dubbed Europe’s last dictator could be added to the list at a later date, should he refuse to enter into talks with the opposition, EU diplomats have said.

The political row has tarnished the EU’s image.

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.”

Ahead of the summit, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said “It is bad that we cannot make it work.”

Recent decisions by the British and Canadian governments to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials have further exposed the EU’s delay. This week the UK imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on Lukashenko himself.

“People are really losing patience. People really don’t appreciate this political hostage-taking,” said a senior EU diplomat.

Throughout Thursday evening, the leaders debated what approach to take in the EU’s increasingly tense ties with Turkey over its drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, its roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and as a sometimes troublesome source of migrants trying to reach Europe.

In a summit statement, they agreed that if Turkey continued to react positively in talks with Cyprus and Greece the bloc will “launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda” with trade and customs incentives, and they held out the prospect of more money and benefits for continued cooperation on migrant flows.

If not, the leaders warned, “the EU will use all the instruments and the options at its disposal,” to “defend its interests and those of its member states”.

“It is now Turkey that has to prove that it wants to go the constructive road with us, and this is the offer tonight. But we are very clear that in the opposite case we have all necessary tools at our disposal,” European commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

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

With Associated Press