Breaking Impasse, E.U. Imposes Sanctions on Belarus

By Steven Erlanger and Monika Pronczuk

The delay in punishing Belarus for the crackdown that followed its flawed elections had been a huge embarrassment for the bloc.

Opposition supporters in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday. Sanctions in response to the crackdown in the country by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko remain blocked by Cyprus.
Opposition supporters in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday. Sanctions in response to the crackdown in the country by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko remain blocked by Cyprus.Credit...Sergei Bobylev/TASS, via Getty Images

By Steven Erlanger and

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders early Friday finally broke a longstanding impasse to impose sanctions against Belarus as they tackled a raft of interconnected issues — from Turkey to the coronavirus recovery fund to the rule of law — that would have been complicated even if taken one by one.

The delay in punishing Belarus for its crackdown after flawed elections on Aug. 9 had been a huge embarrassment for the bloc, and one that Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which comprises the bloc’s leaders, had insisted on resolving, at long last.

The sanctions had been blocked by Cyprus, which wants penalties imposed on Turkey for its energy explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters.

Early Friday morning, after eight hours of talks, the leaders agreed on language that urges Turkey to enter serious negotiations with both Cyprus and Greece on disputed waters and energy rights, and threatens sanctions against it for breaches of international law. Mr. Michel said Brussels still hoped to create “a positive agenda” with Turkey and would review relations in December.

Most important, though, the compromise opened the way for Cyprus to lift its veto and allow the bloc to impose sanctions on some 40 key Belarusian officials — even if those sanctions are likely to have, as many predict, little or no impact on President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s behavior or hold on power. Mr. Lukashenko himself is not on the sanction list.

With Turkey now in talks with Greece after German and NATO mediation, there was little appetite among many of the leaders to annoy Ankara further by imposing sanctions against it now, especially given its importance in helping to manage migration flows into Europe.

There is general unhappiness with the aggressive positions taken by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on display again with his support for Azerbaijan in its clashes with Armenia. But the European Union needs to find a modus vivendi with Mr. Erdogan, and antagonizing him further is unlikely to change his behavior.

ImagePrime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, left, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, met in Brussels on Thursday. Greece is in talks with Turkey over energy explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, left, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, met in Brussels on Thursday. Greece is in talks with Turkey over energy explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters.Credit...Pool photo by John Thys

Still hanging over the leaders, though, is the bloc’s problem with violations of the rule of law in member states, and how efforts to punish those violations are tied in with money. Of particular concern are the coronavirus recovery fund of 750 billion euros, or about $880 billion, and the European Union’s €1.1 trillion multiyear budget.

In July, leaders agreed in a vague way to condition spending to adherence to the rule of law. The insistence of several northern countries, notably Austria, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, on a connection drew immediate opposition from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, which felt targeted by the measure.

A German proposal to open talks on that condition with the European Parliament, which must approve the spending, is considered too lax by a third of the member states, because it is seen as focusing more on the misuse of money than on breaches of law. But without a deal, delivery of the funds, which countries badly affected by the virus, such as Italy and Spain, desperately need, will be delayed even further into next year.

So between the two presumably worthy goals — enforcing the rule of law with conditions on funding, and then delivering the funding more quickly — is a political quandary that cannot be resolved quickly.

Lining up in front of a local health center in Madrid, Spain, last week. Without a deal, delivery of the coronavirus recovery funds will be delayed even further into next year.Credit...Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

In the background, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has introduced a less confrontational effort to warn countries about authoritarian backsliding. For the first time, the commission has published assessments of the state of democracy in each of the 27 member states, avoiding singling out Hungary and Poland (though their reports were more critical than most).

Democratic standards are facing “important challenges,” especially in Hungary and Poland, where judicial systems are under threat, the reports said. They found that prosecution of high-level corruption in Hungary “remains very limited,” and deemed Poland deficient in the four main areas reviewed: national justice systems, anticorruption frameworks, freedom of the press, and checks and balances.

Prosecution of high-level corruption is also limited in the Czech Republic and Malta, the reports said, and there were special challenges to a free press in Bulgaria, Hungary, Malta and Poland.

Poland got particular attention, because bloc officials believe that there is more potential for remedial action there than in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban called for the resignation of the commissioner in charge of the reports, Vera Jourova of the Czech Republic, who called his country an “ill democracy.”

Ms. Jourova, the commissioner for European values, told journalists, “It is relevant to have an overview of these issues and see the links between them — not least because deficiencies often merge into an undrinkable cocktail.”

“The European Union was created also as an antidote to those authoritarian tendencies,” she added.

The Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland. Democratic standards are facing “important challenges,’’ especially in Hungary and Poland, where judicial systems are under threat.Credit...Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

The European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, rejected Mr. Orban’s demands. But Hungary and Poland announced that they would set up their own institute to assess the rule of law in all member nations to avoid “double standards,” Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said. He added that he had had “enough of some Western European politicians using us as a punching bag.”

Hungary and Poland have repeatedly clashed with Brussels over issues like judicial independence, freedom of speech, the role of the news media and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

But the commission has few weapons. It initiated proceedings before the European Court of Justice, whose rulings are obeyed, albeit reluctantly, by Budapest and Warsaw. And it set into action a mechanism that could theoretically lead to the loss of voting rights, but which is useless because it requires unanimity, and Poland and Hungary have vowed to protect each another.

Officials have been reluctant to file an avalanche of cases before the court for fear of being seen as targeting countries and because they would take a long time to resolve.

Hence the effort to tie the disbursement of funds to the rule of law. The German proposal will face a serious challenge in the European Parliament. Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green lawmaker in the chamber, said, “The report as it stands is a toothless tiger, unless it is accompanied by an effective enforcement mechanism that includes cutting funds in case of deficiencies.”

The proposal, he said, “has decapitated the initial idea.”

But without a deal soon, warned Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to the bloc, “delays with consequences for Europe’s economic recovery will most likely be unavoidable.”