The EU’s Weak Response to the Belarus Crisis Illustrates – Once More – the Need for CFSP Reform

The EU has once more demonstrated its inability to develop itself as a global actor having a real impact on international developments. Is it not shameful that the Council has so far been unable to come to final conclusions regarding the sanctioning of those responsible for the violence, repression and falsification of the 9 August Presidential elections in Belarus?

Indeed, while continuously outrageous violence and a series of serious violations of fundamental rights are committed against ordinary Belorussian citizens, the Council has basically remained on the side-lines. Even if the demonstrations in Belarus are not ‘pro-EU’ or ‘anti-Russia’ in nature, we could have expected much more vigour from the Union as a champion of human rights and democracy. For example, an urgent initiative could have been taken in the framework of the OSCE. All EU member states, Belarus (and Russia) are participating states of that organisation. A framework of cooperation between the EU and the OSCE does exist as well. We have, furthermore, missed the opportunity to undertake a formal –and timely- demarche with the Russian President Putin, to (at least try to) convince him of the need of new Presidential elections in Belarus.

During the Council’s session of 21 September, the sanction decision was blocked by Cyprus in an attempt to force the other member states to support sanctions against Turkey in the Mediterranean natural gas drilling dispute. Certainly, that also is a matter of importance, but it is a file that, content wise, has nothing to do with the uprising in Belarus. The Council, and its chair -the High Representative- in the first place should not have allowed that connection to be made.

Moreover, is it not surprising that apparently no reference has been made to Article 31(2), second indent, TEU allowing the Council to decide by QMV in cases wherein the European Council, in an earlier stage, made a request regarding a specific subject matter? In that regard President Michel concluded after the video conference of ‘the members of the European Council’ on 19 August that the EU would shortly impose sanctions against a substantial number of key individuals in Belarus. Those conclusions formally originated from the ‘President’ of the European Council and not from the institution itself, but still.

We also must look more seriously at the option, provided for in Article 31(1), second sub-paragraph, TEU, according to which provision a member state, abstaining in a vote, may qualify its abstention by making a formal declaration.

Be that as it may, the weak response to the Belarus crisis shows once again that unanimity as the main requirement for CFSP decision making is not workable. Unanimity has been introduced in the treaties in times of stability and peace. However, such a rule is out of place when real external tensions and risks for our security do emerge. The more so in situations –such as the one in Belarus- where tensions do occur at our external borders or in our direct neighbourhood.

Therefore, to the extent there is no –structural- political will from the side of national politicians to practise flexibility when applying the CFSP decision making rules, we have to reflect about substantive treaty changes. In that respect, options may vary from pure qualified majority voting, qualified majority decisions that may be blocked by a specific minority or qualified majority decisions that are not binding for the outvoted member states. Another, additional but important, idea already discussed in the April 2020 Editorial concerns the establishment of an EU Security Council to be presided over by the President of the European Council.

Such suggestions can be discussed in the Conference on the Future of Europe that is supposed to be launched shortly (by the way, did you notice, there was only a tiny little reference to this significant Conference in Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech of 16 September).

Anyhow, Belarus is just the latest example showing a pattern whereby the EU acts too late and does too little in foreign policy and security affairs. That pattern has to be adjusted. On the other hand, if the EU’s reputation as an organisation lacking real external authority will remain unchanged, then there may come a moment that also our internal stability will be affected.

Our politicians should not allow that to happen.

Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General