EU challenges Orbán, approves new sanctions on Belarus, discusses what to do about Russia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arriving at last Thursday’s European Council meeting—the last of the 105 she has attended since becoming chancellor in 2005.
Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Last Thursday and Friday, the European Council, consisting of the heads of state or government of the 27 member states of the EU, met in Brussels and discussed a number of pressing issues—the current situation in regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, the progress being made in the vaccination effort, the development of an EU digital Covid certificate that would allow safe cross-border travel, the continuing challenges faced by some member states because of the arrival or migration of refugees, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, including relations with Turkey and assistance for states hosting Syrian refugees, implementation of the EU’s €750 billion Next Generation EU recovery plan, and the challenges facing the euro area and the ongoing effort to create a banking union and a capital markets union.

Given the plethora of pressing issues, and the strong, and at times heated, disagreement among the leaders in regard to two additional issues—one involving the Hungarian parliament’s recent approval of anti-LGBTI+ legislation, the other involving a German-French proposal to not only resume the meetings between the EU and Russian President Vladimir Putin that had been suspended after the 2014 annexation of Crimea but also arrange a summit meeting between the leaders of the EU member states and Putin—it wasn’t surprising that Thursday’s meeting, which began at 1 p.m., didn’t conclude until 2 a.m. Friday.

The Hungarian legislation was not on the meeting’s agenda but was nevertheless raised by several leaders and discussed at length. The legislation, approved by the Hungarian parliament last Wednesday, prohibits gay and transgender material from appearing in schools and in media accessible by those under the age of 18. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the legislation “clearly discriminates against people based on their sexual orientation and goes against the fundamental values of the European Union.” In a letter to Hungary’s minister of justice, the Commission said the bill in effect equates homosexuality and trans-gender issues with pornography and would exert a negative influence on the physical and moral development of minors. It listed several EU laws that would be breached by the legislation if it was signed into law and said the EU “would not hesitate to take action in line with its powers under the Treaty” if that happened—meaning another infringement proceeding and referral to the European Court of Justice.

Needless to say, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán adamantly supported the legislation, claiming that matters of sexual orientation should be dealt with between parents and children, not in schools and the media. But the EU leaders, at least one of whom is gay and spoke movingly about his experience, would have none of that. And most of them, tired of Orbán’s lengthy obstruction of last year’s recovery plan and Hungary’s continuing violations of the rule of law, no doubt nodded in agreement when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at one point suggested that if Orbán doesn’t want to adhere to EU values and EU law he should make use of Article 50 of the Treaty and leave the EU.

Unlike the Hungarian issue, the EU-Russia relationship was on the prepared agenda for Thursday’s meeting. Indeed, it had been on the agenda since the European Council’s special meeting on May 24-25. European Council President Charles Michel had convened that meeting so the leaders could hold a “strategic debate” on Russia and its “illegal and provocative steps…both within EU member states and beyond.” The debate was scheduled because of the EU’s mounting concerns about Russia in the wake of the recent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny upon his return from Germany after having recovered from being poisoned by Russian security service operatives, the concentration of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine this spring, the diplomatic crisis between the Czech Republic and Russia that arose after operatives of the Russian military intelligence agency blew up an ammunition dump, and Russia’s close relationship with Belarus, whose leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was reelected last August in an election which the EU had concluded was neither free nor fair, in which the results were falsified, and after which the regime responded to protests with extensive violence and mass detentions.

By coincidence, that meeting began the day after Belarus, claiming to have received information there was a bomb on board, had instructed a Ryanair 737 on a flight from Athens to Vilnius to divert from its course and, escorted by a MiG-29, land in Minsk, where two passengers – Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian activist living in Vilnius, and Sofia Sapega, a Russian friend – were detained. After the first day of that meeting, the European Council strongly condemned the forced landing, demanded the immediate release of Pratasevich and Sapega, called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the forced landing, invited the Foreign Affairs Council “to adopt further targeted economic sanctions” on Belarus, called on the Commission to submit proposals without delay to that end, called on all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus, and called on the Foreign Affairs Council to adopt the necessary measures to ban the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and their access to EU airports.

Following up on those conclusions, on June 4 the Foreign Affairs Council decided to “strengthen the existing restrictive measures in view of the situation in Belarus by introducing a ban on the overflight of EU airspace and on access to EU airports by Belarusian carriers of all kinds,” meaning that “EU member states will therefore be required to deny permission to land in, take off from or overfly their territory to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers.” Last Monday, following an informal breakfast meeting with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s opponent in last summer’s presidential election, the Council imposed restrictive measures against 78 Belarusian individuals and eight Belarusian entities “in view of  the escalation of serous human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition and journalists.” Seven of the individuals and one of the entities were designated because of their role in the forced landing and subsequent detention of Pratasevich and Sapega. In October, the Council had imposed such measures on 40 Belarusian officials; in November, it had imposed such measures on 15 more individuals, including Lukashenko and his son, who is the national security adviser; and in December, it had approved such measures on 33 more individuals. As a result, the EU restrictive measures now apply to a total of 166 individuals and 15 entities. All of the individuals are subject to a freeze on any assets in the EU, EU citizens and companies are prohibited from making funds available to the individuals and entities, and the individuals are prohibited from entering or transiting through EU territories. The Council also approved, subject to the approval of the European Council at its meeting last week, the imposition of targeted economic sanctions against Belarus.

At their meeting last Thursday, the EU leaders quickly approved the targeted economic sanctions and the Foreign Affairs Council introduced them immediately. They include a prohibition on directly or indirectly selling, supplying, transferring, or exporting to anyone in Belarus equipment, technology or software intended primarily for use in the monitoring or interception of the internet or telephone communications, and dual-use goods and technologies for military use and to specified persons, entities or bodies in Belarus. Trade in petroleum products, potassium chloride (‘potash’) and goods used for the production or manufacturing of tobacco products—all important Belarusian exports—is restricted. Access to EU capital markets is restricted, and providing insurance and re-insurance to the Belarusian government, public bodies, and agencies is prohibited. The European Investment Bank will stop any further disbursements or payments under existing agreements and member states will be required to take actions to limit the involvement in Belarus of multilateral development banks of which they are a member. The leaders also repeated their call for the immediate release of all political prisoners and arbitrarily detained persons, including Pratasevich and Sapega, and for an end to the repression of civil society and independent media in Belarus, and they reiterated “the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their president through new, free and fair elections.”

The forced landing in Minsk on May 23 was, of course, the first order of business for the EU leaders when they met on May 24-25. But, as noted above, that meeting was called so the leaders could hold a “strategic debate” on Russia and its “illegal and provocative steps…both within EU member states and beyond.” In their conclusions for that meeting, the leaders condemned the “illegal, provocative and disruptive Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond” and reaffirmed “the EU’s unity and solidarity in the face of such acts as well as its support to Eastern partners.” They also expressed their solidarity with and support for the Czech Republic, which (with the U.S.) was officially declared by Russia to be an “unfriendly state” after the Czech government accused Russian military intelligence operatives of having blown up a large ammunition dump in 2014. After reaffirming their commitment to the five principles governing EU policy vis-à-vis Russia—implementation of the Minsk Agreements as the key condition for any substantial change in the EU’s stance toward Russia, strengthened relations with the EU’s eastern partners and other neighbors, strengthening the resilience of the EU in regard to energy security, hybrid threats, and strategic communications, the possibility of selective engagement with Russia on issues of interest to the EU, and the need to engage in people-to-people contacts and support Russian civil society—the leaders invited Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy and Commission Vice President in charge of EU external action, to present a report with policy options on EU-Russia relations for their next meeting – the one that took place last Thursday and Friday.

On June 16, Borrell and the Commission submitted a joint communication to the European Parliament, Foreign Affairs Council and European Council entitled “On EU-Russia relations—Push back, constrain and engage.” The communication, a 13-page single-spaced document, presents a tough and highly critical assessment of Russian policy vis-à-vis the EU. It states at the outset that “the Russian leadership uses a variety of instruments to influence, interfere in, weaken or even seek to destabilise the EU and its Member States, as well as the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries.” After reviewing the situation with respect to each of the five principles governing EU policy toward Russia, it concludes “the deliberate policy choices and aggressive actions of the Russian government over the last years have created negative spiral.” (The bold fonts appear in the EU document.) Continuing, it states, “History, geography and people bind the EU and Russia. However, a renewed partnership allowing us to realise the full potential of close cooperation seems a distant prospect. Against the backdrop of the challenging political context and in light of Russia’s strategic choices, the EU needs to prepare for a further downturn of its relations with Russia as the most realistic outlook for the time being.” But in order to help “change the current dynamics into a more predictable and stable relationship…the EU will maintain open channels of communication with Russia. We expect the Russian leadership to demonstrate a more constructive engagement and political commitment and stop actions against the EU and its Member States, as well as against third counties. This is indispensable to turn the current unproductive and potentially dangerous tide in this relationship.”

The EU will, the communication says, ”simultaneously push back, constrain and engage Russia, based on a strong common understanding of Russia’s aims, an approach of principled pragmatism and fully in line with the five principles. The EU will continue to push back against human rights violations and will speak up for democratic values…. The EU will continue to raise Russia’s consistent breaches of international law in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere prominently…The EU will more actively challenge the false narratives employed by Russia to justify its actions, on all levels…..The EU will continue to respond to the Russian government’s malicious actions, including to hybrid actions, in an appropriate manner. This could include scaling-up and expanding its various existing sanctions regimes and/or taking additional restrictive measures if needed. The EU will aim at limiting the resources the Russian government can draw on to carry out its disruptive foreign policy. We will also enforce EU legislation more effectively to counter, in a targeted manner, criminal activities originating from Russia (including ransom attacks), together with like-minded partners….To constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine EU interests, the Union itself must become more robust and resilient. We must counter threats and malign actions more systematically and in a joined up way, whilst ensuring coordination with like-minded partners such as NATO and G7. Member states should coordinate their responses to Russia’s actions even more pro-actively. We should further develop the EU’s cyber security and defence capacity, as well as its strategic communication capabilities….We should continue to strengthen our capabilities against hybrid threats….We will make better use of the leverage provided by our energy transition….We will step up support to our Eastern partners.” Concluding on a brief but more positive note, the communication suggests that “To further its own interests, the EU should engage Russia on several key challenges” involving public health, climate change and other environmental issues, economic irritants (e.g., trade barriers), people-to-people contacts, and regional and cross-border cooperation. It will increase its support for Russian civil society and human rights defenders, work with Russia on conflict prevention and bilateral de-confliction and confidence-building mechanisms, cooperate with it on regional and global issues, and continue to engage with it in multilateral organizations.

Last Monday, the Foreign Affairs Council renewed the sanctions introduced after the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol for another year. The sanctions include restricting EU imports of products originating in Crimea or Sevastopol, infrastructural or financial investments and tourism services in Crimea or Sevastopol. Exports of certain goods and technologies to Crimean companies or for use in Crimea in the transport, telecommunications and energy sectors or for the prospection, exploration and production of oil, gas and mineral resources are also subject to EU restrictions. In announcing the renewal of those sanctions, the Council noted that other EU measures in place in response to the crisis in Ukraine include economic sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy and individual restrictive measures. Nevertheless, the sanctions renewed last week as well as the other sanctions and restrictive measures have had little, if any, observable effect, either in ameliorating the situation in eastern Ukraine or restraining the “illegal, provocative and disruptive Russian activities against the EU, its member states and beyond.” That being the case, the obvious question facing the leaders as they convened last Thursday was: “What should the EU do about Russia?”

That question was especially pertinent because of the proposal German Chancellor Angela Merkel, supported by French President Emmanuel Macron, floated in conversations with a number of EU leaders in the run-up to Thursday’s meeting. On the same day Borrell and the Commission issued their tough joint communication on the EU-Russia relationship, U.S. President Joe Biden had met with Putin in Geneva. The fact that, notwithstanding the annexation of Crimea, the threatening movement of Russian troops to areas adjacent to Ukraine this spring, the poisoning and then imprisonment of Navalny, and all the other unfriendly activities undertaken by Russia recently, Biden would agree to meet with the Russian president surprised many EU leaders and caused several of them—most notably, Merkel, who has met with Putin on a number of occasions and speaks with him by phone from time to time, and Macron, who has also met with Putin and speaks with him occasionally—to discuss whether the EU should move toward a closer engagement with Putin and Russia, one that  that might include not only the resumption of the periodic talks between the EU leaders and Putin that had been suspended after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 but even the possibility of inviting him to meet with the members of the European Council. After all, they reasoned, if the U.S. had decided its interests would be served by meeting with Putin, surely the EU should be meeting with him as well.

Last Wednesday, prior to last week’s European Council meeting, France and Germany attempted to insert into the draft conclusions for the meeting language supporting a closer engagement with Putin and Russia, including resumption of the EU-Russia talks that had been halted in 2014 and even a possible summit meeting between Putin and the EU leaders. They immediately encountered, quite predictably, a firestorm of opposition—most notably, from Poland and the Baltic states, but from other member states as well, especially to the proposal of a meeting of the leaders of the EU member states with Putin. While generally supportive of Merkel and of her proposal, Rutte, for one, made it clear at last Thursday’s meeting that he wouldn’t meet with Putin. More than anything else, including the heated and at times acrimonious discussion prompted by the recent Hungarian legislation, it was the prolonged, and at times heated, discussion about the proposal to move to a closer engagement with Russia, including resumption of the EU-Russia meetings and possibly even a summit meeting between the EU leaders and Putin, that caused Thursday’s meeting to go on until 2 a.m. Friday morning.

In their conclusions to last week’s meeting, the European Council reiterated the EU’s commitment to a “united, long-term, and strategic approach based on the five guiding principles,” said it “expects the Russian leadership to demonstrate a more constructive engagement and political commitment and stop actions against the EU and its Member States, as well as against third countries,” and called on Russia “to fully assume its responsibility in ensuring the full implementation of the Minsk agreements as the key condition for any substantial change in the EU’s stance.” It stressed the need for “a firm and coordinated response by the EU and its Member States to any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia, making full use of all instruments at the EU’s disposal, and ensuring coordination with partners. To this end, the European Council also invites the Commission and the High Representative to present options for additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions.”

However, while raising the prospect of additional economic sanctions if Russia undertakes “any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity,” the leaders also reiterated the EU’s openness to a “selective engagement with Russia in areas of EU interest” and, toward that end, invited the Commission and the High Representative “to develop concrete options including conditionalities and leverages in this regard, with a view to their consideration by the Council, on topics such as climate and the environment, health, as well as selected issues of foreign and security policy…In this context, the European Council will explore formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia.” The leaders condemned “the limitations on fundamental freedoms in Russia and the shrinking space for civil society” and stressed the need for people-to-people contacts and continued EU support to Russian civil society, human rights organizations and independent media and invited the Commission and High Representative to put forward proposals in that regard. Finally, the European Council reiterated “its full support for all efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability for the victims of the downing of MH17 and their next of kin and calls on all States to cooperate fully with the ongoing legal case.”

Some of the language—“concrete options including conditionalities and leverages,” “formats and conditionalities of dialogue”—is opaque. But the message is nevertheless quite clear: The EU is open to “selective engagement” with Russia in some key areas such as health, the climate and  environment and some aspects of foreign and security policy. But its engagement will be conditional on the Russian leadership demonstrating its commitment to a more constructive engagement with the EU, stopping its malign activities against the EU and its member states, and ensuring the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. The next move is Putin’s.


David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.