EU leaders meet in Brussels to discuss Belarus response

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The European Union could decide to sanction Belarus once again on Monday evening after the country forced a Ryanair flight to land and detained a Belarusian opposition journalist on board.

The incident, which interrupted a flight between two EU countries, has leapt onto the agenda of a Brussels summit at the last minute, souring relations between Minsk and the bloc even further.

European Council President Charles Michel slammed the move by Minsk as an “international scandal” that put the lives of European civilians at risk.

European Council President Charles Michel arrives at a special EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 24 May 2021. EU leaders will discuss foreign policy issues, among them strategic debate on Russia and the incident involving the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus on 23 May. EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN / POOL

EU officials were drafting a variety of punitive measures for the bloc to consider, Michel said. “I hope tonight we can make a decision on that,” he told journalists before the summit. 

One possibility is targeted sanctions against people responsible for what EU governments and officials said was a state “hijacking” of a commercial flight between Athens and Vilnius on Sunday.

This would be the fourth round of punitive measures since October.

The member states could also ban national airline Belavia from landing at EU airports or order EU airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. This is legally more complicated than targeting individuals, however.

Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, 24 May 2021. EU leaders will discuss foreign policy issues, among them strategic debate on Russia and the incident involving the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus on 23 May. EPA-EFE/FRANCISCO SECO / POOL

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who had been on board, was taken into custody after the flight was diverted to the Belarusian capital on allegations of a bomb threat.

The manoeuvre caused international outrage. The bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called it “yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives at a special EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 24 May 2021. EU leaders will discuss foreign policy issues, among them strategic debate on Russia and the incident involving the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus on 23 May. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL

“Well today we are going to have an especial point in the agenda that was not in the agenda a couple of days ago. As you can imagine I am talking about the forced landing of this Ryanair plane in Minsk that we consider completely unacceptable, as much as the arrest of two passengers. We are asking for immediate release of them. We’re going to discuss about the measures to be taken because this cannot go without consequences,” Borrell said.

“Today (we’re discussing) foreign policy with Belarus which has inserted itself into the agenda with an unacceptable situation, a completely crazy thing straight out of a really bad movie with a president who diverts a plane because there’s someone on it who criticises his regime, a journalist or a blogger or whoever it is. It really shows the state of the regime and the madness we’ve never seen before. So it’s unacceptable and we have to respond. If we don’t manage to respond to that then we aren’t free to go anywhere, with a dictator who forces you to land with a lot of other people in the plane, it’s really nonsense.”

Belarus said it is open to an international investigation into the forced landing. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatoly Glass rejected EU criticism saying Minsk had had fully complied with international regulations.

Belarus has seen months of protests – matched with a dogged crackdown – after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an election in August last year that the opposition sees as rigged.

Since the poll, which the EU maintains was neither free nor fair, the bloc has imposed sanctions over several rounds. The total of targeted individuals is currently 88, including Lukashenko himself, plus seven entities.

The 66-year-old has led Belarus – a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe bordering EU states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – for more than a quarter of a century, tolerating little dissent.

NATO ambassadors are likewise set to discuss the matter on Monday. Britain is also weighing sanctions.

The EU summoned Belarusian ambassador Aleksandr Mikhnevich, during which he “was informed of the firm condemnation by the EU institutions,” according to a statement. Several member states also hauled in Belarusian envoys bilaterally.

The Brussels summit was initially scheduled to focus on debates on the bloc’s strategy towards Russia, for example, and was expected to be relatively uneventful. 

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen arrives at a special EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 24 May 2021. EU leaders will discuss foreign policy issues, among them strategic debate on Russia and the incident involving the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus on 23 May. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL

Minsk has grown closer to Moscow in recent years. But Lukashenko has also maintained relations with EU partners in his almost 27 years in power.

CDE / dpa / Reuters

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