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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Speech in the European Parliament in the debate on Belarus
European Parliament/ Strasbourg
26 October 2012
Belarus held parliamentary elections on 23 September. It will not come as a surprise to this house to hear me state my disappointment at the way they were conducted.
The day after the elections, the HR/VP Ashton and I issued a joint statement, expressing the European Union’s regret that Belarus had missed yet another opportunity to hold elections in line with international standards. We therefore share the assessment of this house, expressed both in the statement by President Schulz, Chairman Brok and other Members of the European Parliament, regretting the undemocratic nature of the parliamentary elections. This assessment is also reflected in last week's Council Conclusions and I expect will also be mirrored in your resolution.
According to the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission, "many OSCE commitments … were not respected, despite some improvements to the electoral law". It also notes that "while there was an increase in the number of candidates put forward by parties, prominent political figures who might have played a role in this contest remained imprisoned or were not eligible to register due to their criminal record".
Our assessment of internal developments in Belarus remains pessimistic. Things are not getting better and the grip on civil society is being tightened. There is no sign of willingness by the Belarusian authorities to address our core concerns – the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.
Last week, the Council adopted Conclusions and a Decision regarding the review of the restrictive measures (roll-over of the existing sanctions); both express our concern about the internal situation in Belarus as well as the state of play of European Union's bilateral relations with the country.
The outcome of the Foreign Affairs Council also confirms the continuity of our established and consensus-based policy: namely the will to continue our policy of critical engagement, call for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners, continuation of restrictive measures, while at the same time reaching out to Belarusian society.
In the current situation where there are few signs of progress from Minsk, we can however look at how to invest in the future and, at the same time, how to keep technical and diplomatic communication channels open between the European Union and Belarus. We have an interest in keeping a working relationship with Minsk. Technical dialogues and cooperation continue with the Belarusian administration and we keep the country engaged within the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership.
The main drive behind our policy is our commitment to strengthening the engagement with the Belarusian people and civil society. It remains an essential aspect of investing in the future of Belarus. We must continue our engagement with Belarusian society as a whole promoting people-to-people contacts. We are not trying to isolate the Belarusian people. It is particularly regrettable that the authorities are not taking up our offer to negotiate visa facilitation and re-admission agreements between the European Union and Belarus. However, the Member States strive to make optimal use of the flexibilities offered by the Visa Code to waive and reduce visa fees for some categories of Belarusian citizens or in individual cases.
The European message should be brought to as many ordinary Belarusians as possible including through our assistance projects. This is a priority. The European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarusian society is an important part of this engagement, an essential aspect of our policy, providing a rare positive element in this overall sombre picture.
The participation of the Belarusian authorities in the Dialogue is an issue. It is needed because their absence raises questions about the viability of the Dialogue. From our side, we continue to stress to the administration that we would welcome their constructive participation at technical level.
Our financial assistance to civil society has increased fivefold since the 2010 post-electoral crackdown and, clearly, this cooperation still holds a great potential. Let me also inform you that we are currently looking at how to further rebalance and better target our aid for civil society.
In conclusion and while fully acknowledging the challenges we face, we believe that the European Union is following a balanced approach, which will allow us to have an impact on developments in Belarus and enhance the prospects for future European Union-Belarus cooperation.
Thank you very much for this interesting debate. As I said, I fully share the concerns expressed by the honourable members regarding the political situation in the country. Let me reassure you that we will, together with HR/VP Ashton, continue to encourage the Belarusian authorities to take steps to fully implement Belarus' international commitments to democratic principles and human rights.
It is clear that under these circumstances we have every interest in seeking to increase the impact of our policies on Belarus. We will continue to call for the unconditional release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and insist that the development of bilateral relations between the European Union and Belarus remain conditional on progress in the field of human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.
Our policy of critical engagement with Belarus is a long term challenge. The European Union’s policies are principled and with the clear goal of including Belarus in the family of democratic and open nations. However, we know that for political and economic reasons, bigger changes in this country are likely to take time. We discuss our policy of critical engagement towards Belarus regularly and, as you can see, our policies and messages stay calibrated and balanced.