EU leaders discuss sanctions after incident with Ryanair flight

LONDON — Outraged European leaders are gathering in Brussels Monday to discuss how to punish Belarusian authorities, after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight and subsequent arrest of a journalist on board.

A fighter jet escorted the Ryanair flight, which was in Belarusian airspace, to land it the capital of Minsk. The authorities cited a security threat but then proceeded to detain dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.

Ryanair has since called it “an act of aviation piracy” and Belarus has been widely condemned by the West. The plane had been traveling from Greece to Lithuania — two EU members — on Sunday.

The EU summit on Monday was meant to be a meeting about climate action, but instead it is now expected to be dominated by the incident in Belarus. “This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices,” the 27 EU member states said in a statement on Monday morning.

Former chief editor of a Telegram channel Nexta, Roman Protasevich was detained in Minsk.

NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Nigel Gould-Davies, a former U.K. ambassador to Belarus, told CNBC’s Street Signs on Monday that it was “absolutely imperative that the EU, and I hope with American support as well, will take a much stronger and concerted stance now.”

What can be done?

On the EU’s table is the possibility of stepping up sanctions against Belarus.

The EU put forward sanctions against the regime and, in particular, against President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 for the violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists. This came in the aftermath of a presidential election that took place in August, which the EU did not recognize as free and fair.

Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, suggested that the airspace over Belarus should be recognized as unsafe and Belarussian aircraft should not be accepted at European airports.

Alexander Stubb, the former prime minister of Finland, told CNBC Monday that “there is no hope for cooperation before regime change. The EU should use all instruments in its toolbox, starting with sanctions across the board.”

What future for EU foreign policy?

The incident comes at a time when the EU has struggled to reach a consensus over key foreign policy matters. Last week, for example, the 27 EU nations failed to agree on a common statement on the recent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians after Hungary declined to sign it off.

Earlier this month, EU ministers also didn’t not agree on a common statement on China, also after Hungary blocked a consensus.

“The Ryanair hijack is the ultimate test case for the credibility of the EU foreign policy on both the world and EU stage,” Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at H.E.C. business school, told CNBC.

“Either the EU will succeed in unanimously speak(ing) and act(ing) against Lukashenko’s (Belarus), and Russia — should its involvement be confirmed  — or this accident could mark the end of the Union’s much-sought strategic autonomy,” he added.

Franak Viacorka is senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ opposition leader who is also currently in exile, this time in Lithuania.

He told CNBC’s Dan Murphy Monday that Protasevich was one of many disrupters challenging Lukashenko’s regime.

He said it was crucial that Belarus was now on the agenda at the EU summit, and said he expected ministers and leaders in the region to support Belarusian citizens. He added that Belarus could prove to be a success story if Washington and Brussels acted together.

“Right now there are 3,000 criminal cases open against young people, journalists, teachers, doctors … but Roman was one of the most vocal, and I think journalists are the main target for the regime right now,” he said.


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