EU leaders to press Cyprus to lift veto over Belarus sanctions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will try to break a stalemate over Belarus on Thursday by untangling a separate standoff with Turkey that has exposed the paralysis in the bloc’s decision-making.

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit, leaders are set to confront Cyprus, one the EU’s smallest members, which is accused of holding up approval of economic sanctions on Belarus following an election in August that the West and the opposition say was rigged.

While Britain and Canada have gone ahead with punitive measures on Minsk to show support for pro-democracy protests, the impasse in the 27 state-EU, where decisions are taken by unanimity, has cost the bloc credibility, diplomats said.

“We expect that it (the summit) will be the tipping point for the decision on sanctions against Belarus authorities,” Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, where Belarus’ main opposition leader has fled to exile, said ahead of the meeting.

Cyprus says the EU must first agree to impose sanctions on Turkey to send a message that Ankara’s oil and gas exploration along the coast of the Mediterranean island is unacceptable.

Cypriot officials cite an August agreement among EU foreign ministers to approve Turkish sanctions and Belarus sanctions together, arguing that both are of equal importance.

“There’s a great deal of political activity at the highest levels…to try and unblock the situation on sanctions against Belarus,” a senior EU diplomat said.

The economically powerful EU sees itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights, eager to influence international events through its soft power that transformed former communist neighbours into thriving market economies.

But its unanimity rule in foreign policy and its strained relationship with Turkey, which is quickly becoming one of its most difficult, have raised questions about the EU’s ability to exert influence internationally.

Weakened in foreign policy by Britain’s departure from the EU – a subject that will feature during the second day of the summit – the EU is being pulled in different directions by France’s tough stance on Turkey and Germany’s push for dialogue.

EU diplomats say a solution could involve a promise to Cyprus for tough sanctions on Turkey in the future.

“The idea is to threaten Turkey with retaliatory measures if it continues with drilling and other provocations in Cypriot and Greek waters,” a second senior EU diplomat said.

“This is meant to offer guarantees to Cyprus and convince Nicosia to lift its veto on Belarus sanctions.”

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