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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

A geopolitical Commission? Consider Belarus a wake-up call

07 Oct 2020 - 17:48

We can all imagine that, on 1 October 2020, the leaders of the other 26 European Union (EU) Member States called the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, into the room where the European Council (Council) was meeting, sat him down, and told him: unblock sanctions on Belarus now, or we give you nothing to take home to your electorate.

One day later, and a disgraceful 54 days after President Alexander Lukashenko stole the presidential election from the Belarusian people, the Council imposed sanctions against 40 individuals engaged in electoral theft and the subsequent violent repression of civilians. As a consequence of this repression, 13.000 brave Belarusians had been detained during those 54 days, six of which were killed.

I do not think those sanctions went far enough. In a resolution on 17 September, the European Parliament demanded sanctions against all Belarusian perpetrators of election fraud, violence and repression. Next to this, the Parliament repeatedly insisted that to be credible, the list must include dictator Lukashenko.

The effectiveness and credibility of EU foreign policy can still be held hostage by a tiny Member State that represents 0.2% of the EU’s citizens

But their insufficiency does not weigh up to the tragic truth revealed by this ridiculously drawn-out process: Despite an ambitious ‘geopolitical European Commission’ and lofty objectives of ‘strategic autonomy’, the effectiveness and credibility of the EU’s foreign policy can still be held hostage by a tiny Member State that represents 0.2% of the EU’s citizens.

The root problem is clear. As long as the unanimity requirement is maintained, EU foreign policy will often not allow for immediate decisions, effective action and the projection of European unity. Any decisions that the Council makes, will therefore remain constrained by the lowest common denominator, on which all 27 heads of the Member States can agree.

That is not the right decision-making process for a global economic power, especially in a world in which we can no longer fully rely on the United States. Forget about a geopolitical Commission with the ambition to project European values on the world stage; we cannot even agree on making value-based decisions in our immediate neighbourhood.

The evident and much-debated solution is the introduction of a system called qualified majority voting (QMV). Under QMV, a decision or statement passes if it is supported by at least 55% of the Member States, representing 65% of all EU citizens.

This system is not revolutionary. It is already widely applied in matters relating to the Member States’ core interests, including climate, migration, and the single market. Even in these cases, the EU’s collaborative character leads Member States to pursue unanimity and QMV functions only as a fallback option. But at least the option exists.

The Council has a wide variety of additional tools at its exposal - if it wants

Ironically, the decision to relinquish the unanimity requirement can only be taken with unanimity. Many of the EU’s smaller countries, Cyprus included, are afraid that giving up their veto means their national interests will be ignored by larger Member States. Therefore, we cannot expect QMV to be adopted anytime soon.

Nevertheless, we must take steps in that direction. The first step is the development of a common strategic culture. In plain terms: the leaders of the 27 EU Member States need to work towards an understanding that EU borders are our borders.

Correspondingly, any threats faced by one Member State are faced by all, and the EU as a whole has a role to play on the global stage. This is what the EU’s Strategic Compass, to be launched early next year, will aim to do.

The Council has a wide variety of additional tools at its exposal - if it wants. It could release quick statements on pressing issues with the support of fewer Member States. Next to this, it could allow for Member States to ‘abstain constructively’ without losing face.

Finally, most crucially, the Council should adopt an EU human rights sanction mechanism as a ‘decision of the European Council on the strategic interests and objectives of the Union’. While this decision itself requires unanimity, such a framework would allow for the swift imposition of sanctions through QMV.

Meanwhile, the brave people of Belarus took to the streets again this weekend to demand the release of political prisoners, an end to the dictatorship’s violent repression, and new free and fair elections.

I am glad to see that the Council finally took a stand, imposed some sanctions and expressed tangible support for the democratic people of Belarus by announcing economic assistance. The EU wants to be a credible value-based player on the international stage. This ambition starts right at our borders. Let Belarus be a wake-up call


Kati Piri
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Dutch Labour Party