Destabilizing speculation

EU sanctions Belarus as border crisis begins to ease


There is cautious optimism in Brussels that the weather appears to be easing over crises with Belarus and Russia on the EU’s eastern border, as Minsk steps back from its long-standing border standoff with Warsaw and Moscow have yet to make an army foray into Ukraine, despite a new rally of troops on the border. But there is also a feeling in Brussels and across the continent that the events of the past few weeks are a harbinger of dark days to come.

EU defense ministers met on Tuesday to discuss both Belarus’ “hybrid war” on the Polish border and the reinforcement of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. They were joined by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who warned Moscow not to take “aggressive measures” against Ukraine. The French and German foreign ministers also warned of “serious consequences” for Russia if it invaded Ukraine again. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed the issue with US President Joe Biden at the White House last week, both saying they “fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine”. But it will be cold comfort for Kiev, which watched the West with folded arms when Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russian forces in 2014, aside from the imposition of sanctions that failed to reverse it. ‘annexation.

In the days following von der Leyen’s meeting with Biden, the situation at the EU’s eastern border calmed down somewhat on both fronts, with no new arrivals of migrants in Belarus and no new Russian troop movements. . Faced with the threat of sanctions, third country airlines from Turkey, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates have voluntarily agreed to stop one-way flights to Minsk for people arriving from Syria, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Yemen. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both been in direct contact with the Belarusian government; Belarusian authorities have started moving migrants from the border to a logistics warehouse near the Kuznica checkpoint and from there eventually to Minsk. Repatriation flights to Iraq are due to start today and Belavia, Belarus’ national airline, is voluntarily participating in the flights. This has led some EU member states to consider suspending the application of sanctions against the airline for the time being, much to the frustration of eastern member states of the bloc.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers adopted the legal basis for a new round of sanctions against Belarus for human trafficking, but have yet to decide who exactly in Minsk will be targeted by them. For the first time, ministers are also said to have agreed to add Russian private military contractor, the Wagner Group, to the EU’s sanctions list, accusing the company of carrying out destabilizing actions in the region as well as in Africa.

Eastern bloc EU member states continue to call for an emergency summit of EU leaders to discuss the stalemate with Minsk and wider tensions with Russia in the region, and of their implications for the union. But the momentum for such a summit, which would ostensibly be held before the next European Council summit scheduled for Brussels in mid-December, is fading.

Yet even as the situation on the border with Belarus deteriorates, thousands of migrants remain trapped there, caught between barbed wire and Polish border guards on one side and the Belarusian army on the other. Belarusian President Viktor Lukashenko now says Minsk will bring the migrants back to their countries of origin, but the question is whether they will be ready to return. Refugee agencies say about half of the migrants trapped at the border are women and children.

When it comes to Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border, officials in Washington and Brussels have remained perplexed as to the real intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The build-up sparked much speculation, including the possibility that Putin asked Lukashenko to organize the influx of migrants in order to sow chaos and confusion ahead of a planned Russian invasion of Ukraine, or that Russian troops were preparing an invasion and annexation of Belarus. Others believe that Putin may be just playing mind games with the West, showing that Moscow can still cause pain on the EU’s eastern border and panic in Brussels. Whatever Putin’s real intentions, developments on the EU’s eastern flank continue to sound the alarm in Brussels and elsewhere that they could be a harbinger of a more worrying turn.

In other news

Brexit back and forth between UK and EU continues. With each passing day the UK government seems to be adopting a different tone as to whether or not it will trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the so-called nuclear option of the Brexit deal to get out of the emergency protocol – and risk of collapse. of the post-Brexit free trade agreement it concluded with the EU. Some days are full of belligerent threats, while others are devoted to soft diplomacy. Tuesday appeared to be more in the latter case, as UK Brexit Minister David Frost told Irish media the UK government accepts the Brexit divorce deal it signed requires London to carry out checks “reasonable” customs duties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has yet to admit it publicly, and this is a position that Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland actively oppose. But Frost said such checks should only be carried out on goods destined for the Republic of Ireland, not on those destined for Northern Ireland. The question now is how to determine which goods are going where. Meanwhile, the European Commission keeps its retaliatory plan on the ice, but ready to be launched in case the UK triggers Article 16.

New lockdowns are imposed in Western Europe. Last week, the Netherlands announced the first new lockdown in Western Europe since the continent launched its mass vaccination campaign earlier this year, ordering nightclubs, bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. during at least the next three weeks. Austria has also put in place a lockdown, but only for the unvaccinated, who will have to stay at home. Slovakia followed with the Austrian model. The new restrictions come against a backdrop of rising cases in Western Europe. Case rates in Eastern Europe, where vaccination is considerably lower than in the west of the continent, have already been increasing for two months, and several countries, including Romania and Latvia, have already been stranded for weeks. Bulgaria currently has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned yesterday that “the number of new daily infections in Germany is higher than ever”. Federal and state officials are meeting today to discuss the possibility of introducing new restrictions.

That the Netherlands became the first country in Western Europe to force those vaccinated into a partial lockdown surprised many observers, given the country’s libertarian tendencies. These have been exposed throughout the pandemic as the government has systematically imposed less severe restrictions on its neighbors. There was speculation that Belgium, which has much worse workloads than the Netherlands, would follow suit. But yesterday, the Belgian authorities announced that they would not shut down nightlife yet. Instead, they will extend the country’s mask mandate to bars and restaurants, which were exempt from requiring masks since October 15 in light of the vaccination certification required to enter. People in nightclubs in Belgium will now have to wear masks until January at the earliest. Nightclubs that don’t want to force patrons to wear a mask have an option: they can require a negative test at the door, in addition to full proof of vaccination.

Dave Keating has been an American-European journalist based in Brussels for 12 years. A native of the New York City area, he has previously covered the halls of Congress in Washington, courtrooms in Chicago, boardrooms in London, cafes in Paris and the climate campaigns in Berlin.