European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Address at the extraordinary meeting of the AFET on Belarus
Foreign Affairs Committee, European Parliament
Brussels, 12 January 2011
Mr Chairman, let me start by thanking you and your colleagues for your efforts. I appreciate very much your achievement in calling together, at short notice, speakers representing a broad range of interests both within and outside Belarus.
Belarusians are our neighbours and partners, and we should be guided in our thoughts by the need to respect their interests. An open exchange of views on the difficult situation we are facing is exactly what is needed: I hope today’s discussion will guide all of us in determining how to proceed from here.
Time is not on our side: we have had to digest and react to December’s events very quickly, and to discuss our reactions with Member States. However, I am glad that we are in a position to share with you both our assessment of the situation and our proposed response in the short term.
Mr Chairman, my clear view is that we have a duty to react quickly and proportionately, but that we must do so without isolating the citizens of Belarus. For this reason, I want to stress from the outset the fundamental need for a balanced approach which sets enhanced openness towards civil society and citizens as a counterweight to targeted measures against the Belarusian authorities, including a review of sanctions.
This is not about watering down our response, but about ensuring that we keep our eye on the goal of social and civil development in Belarus, and improvements rather than further disruptions to the lives of citizens. This means we should keep open the channels of direct assistance to NGOs, the media and students, and it also means that we should continue to take steps to increase mobility for Belarusian citizens wishing to travel to the EU.
Mr Chairman, I imagine we all share a common perception of the current situation. We were profoundly shocked by the events which followed the elections on 19 December. We noted with concern the assessment of OSCE-ODIHR that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments. It is also quite obvious that the electoral process was marred by the detention of several civil society and opposition representatives.
Some 700 people have been detained in the last few weeks. Though most have been released, it is shocking that as many as 30 people, including some presidential candidates, face charges that could lead to 15 year prison sentences.
As you know, Catherine Ashton condemned the repressive measures and called for the immediate release of all those detained on political grounds; this message was strongly reiterated in a joint statement with Hillary Clinton. The security and safety of peaceful activists, including presidential candidates, remains our top priority.
Having stated very clearly our position, the next step is of course to determine which measures we should take towards Belarus. In making this decision, as I stated earlier, we have to strike a proper balance between sending to the authorities a clear message of our disapproval and condemnation, and reinforcing our contacts with the Belarusian people at large. In our view these goals cannot be reconciled if we revert to the situation which existed before 2008, in other words by isolating the population and cutting the dialogue completely.
We also need to look at the timing of our response, distinguishing measures that should be taken as a matter of priority and further measures which will need further preparation and reflection. This means a two-phased approach.
Mr Chairman, let me start by updating you on the first phase of our reaction, that is to say the priority measures. The reintroduction of a travel ban for President Lukashenko, and its extension to further individuals, is clearly an option. This and other options will be actively considered in the run-up to the Foreign Affairs Council of 31 January.
However, we have to be clear about the aim and the best way to use sanctions so that we can make an objective assessment of their impact. Our objective is of course to obtain the release of political prisoners and the safety of all those detained. Our message to Minsk is clear: Belarus should urgently release detainees and stop immediately the repression of democratic forces if it wishes to avoid sanctions: the timescale for these releases is measured in days and hours, not weeks. I have conveyed this message to Foreign Minister Martynov, and Catherine Ashton further insisted today on the urgency of the situation in her own meeting with Mr Martynov.
Let me turn now to positive measures, and especially those focused on civil society. The EEAS, in cooperation with the Commission, has prepared options for urgent measures which would focus on NGOs, media and students. The EP also has the possibility to provide scholarships for students expelled from university. I really hope that we can pool our efforts in this respect. Let me stress that we have also encouraged Member States to conduct a similar review exercise, and I hope the Donors Coordination meeting organised by Poland on 2 February will encourage significantly reinforced Member States support.
I also believe that visa facilitation, in parallel with readmission, should remain on top of our agenda for the sake of the Belarusian citizens. Clearly, however, we should ensure that this is not a gift to the authorities. To further enhance mobility, co-ordinated actions by Member States consulates in Minsk to facilitate the delivery of visas should be encouraged.
Mr Chairman, looking further ahead, if you like into the second phase of our response, let me share with you my thoughts on some other aspects of our relations:
Regarding the Joint Interim Plan, I believe we should pause in the immediate future, but without definitively burying or abandoning the plan. However, we should of course consult civil society, and if necessary review the content of the JIP accordingly. It is important that Belarusian citizens know the full picture of the EU's offer to Belarus.
Regarding ENPI assistance to Belarus, I am clear that this should not be blocked, provided we continue in our approach of targeting the needs of the population. Once again, this means ensuring the orientation of aid is suitably focused on civil society.
Finally, Mr Chairman, I strongly believe that Belarus should continue to participate in the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership: its participation up to now has been limited and does not entail significant financial assistance as the bulk of the support is under the bilateral track; however, it is essential that the current crisis should be managed in the right regional context and that the weight of other key partners should be used to the full.
Mr Chairman, what I have presented represents a difficult balancing act, and we will have to review the evolution of events on a continuous basis. I hope that I can count on the support of parliamentarians and other stakeholders, and I look forward to hearing your views today. Thank you.