EU leaders seek end to embarrassing Belarus sanctions clash

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European Council President Charles Michel wears a protective mask as he waits for the arrival of Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, ahead of a meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. European Union leaders are meeting to address a series of foreign affairs issues ranging from Belarus to Turkey and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. (John Thys, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders gathered Thursday to try to end an embarrassing standoff that is preventing them from imposing sanctions on senior officials in Belarus who are accused of falsifying presidential election results and leading a harsh crackdown on peaceful protesters.

The roadblock borders on the absurd. All EU member countries reject the result of the Aug. 9 election that allowed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to extend his 26 years in office. EU members want a new election and agree that sanctions should be slapped on dozens of officials, perhaps even the leader once dubbed Europe’s last dictator.

But Cyprus, one of the EU’s smallest member countries, is vetoing the move. It is demanding that its partners in the world’s biggest trading bloc also take action against Turkey for its energy exploration work in disputed waters off the island nation’s coast.

After European foreign ministers failed to break the deadlock last month, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned that “our credibility is at stake,” if the bloc cannot forge a common foreign policy among 27 countries on issues of concern in wider Europe or around the Mediterranean.

“It is bad that we cannot make it work,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday.

“It is of major importance we agree on Belarus sanctions. There is wide-ranging agreement on that. A link between Belarus and Turkey is political only, and has no explanation when we assess the facts,” Rutte said. “What we need to achieve in the coming hours is a decoupling, while we have to recognize there are legitimate concerns about Turkey.”

Before the leaders of EU nations met for a two-day summit Thursday, diplomats said an accommodation might be found. At dinner, the leaders will have wide-ranging talks about the EU’s troubled ties with Turkey over its drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, its roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and as a source of migrants trying to reach Europe.

Cyprus could be appeased if its partners underline their support in the final summit communique, or in a special statement from European Council President Charles Michel, who is chairing the two-day meeting. The leaders could then give a green light to sanctions against dozens of Belarus officials.

That would allow national envoys to quickly enact the sanctions in coming days, the EU diplomats said.

In a televised address marking the 60th anniversary of Cyprus’ independence, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades expressed Thursday his “sincere gratitude to all European Union member states for their staunch support and solidarity in light of Turkey’s provocations.”

But Anastasiades said he wants the leaders to take “a more tangible and effective stance to bring about an end to gunboat diplomacy and for the crisis to be succeeded by dialogue or recourse to the international court on the basis of international law and the law of the sea.”

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said that “Turkey’s destabilizing actions in the eastern Mediterranean are unacceptable and exacerbate an already tense situation.”

“Should the dialogue path not yield results, then the EU must be ready to consider other courses of action, such as expanded listings within the framework of the existing sanctions regime,” Lofven was quoted as saying by Swedish news agency TT before the summit.

In a draft of the final summit statement, seen by The Associated Press, the leaders say the EU “fully supports the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their President through new free and fair elections, without external interference.”

They call “on the Belarusian authorities to end violence and repression, release all detainees and political prisoners, respect media freedom and civil society, and start an inclusive national dialogue.” In the document, they agree “that restrictive measures should be imposed” on Belarus officials.

The dispute shines a spotlight on troubling old questions about the EU’s ability to act quickly and with one voice. The leaders will also discuss ties with China, but here, too, they are divided on how to approach a country that is a major trading partner yet poses serious economic and political challenges.

It’s also possible that divisions will be exposed in other ways, given a worrying rise of authoritarianism in some member countries. An EU report this week on the state of the rule of law — the independence of the judiciary, corruption and media freedoms — has ruffled feathers and could be raised during the summit.

Hungary and Poland are notably angry about the report and an attempt to link countries’ access to certain relatively generous kinds of EU funds to the way they run their democracies.

The leaders will also hold brief talks on Brexit, scheduled for Friday, after the EU’s executive commission launched legal action against Britain for reneging on its commitments in the divorce agreement.

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Raf Casert in Brussels, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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