EU should open all doors to Belarus

 (2013 07 19)

By MEP Justas Vincas Paleckis, draftsperson of EP recommendation on EU policy towards Belarus

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is interested in maintaining a freedom of manoeuvre in relations with the European Union and Russia. He cannot always ignore the EU, because his country becomes more vulnerable in relations with Moscow. His interest is not to deviate too much to the East and the EU should make best use of it to facilitate democratic changes in the country.

Opening “all gates, doors and even windows” for people to people contacts with this country first of all by unilaterally reducing the Schengen visa costs to an affordable level could be the best incentive for democratic change in Belarus. This is one of the main ideas of the European Parliament recommendation for EU policy towards Belarus that was adopted with broad majority across the political groups on Tuesday, 9 July in the Foreign Affairs Committee. 55 Members of the Committee voted for the document, 1 voted against and 5 abstained.

Currently Belarusians pay 60 euros for Schengen visa, while the Russians, Ukrainians and many other Eastern EU neighbours pay significantly less - 35 euros. If by imposing these high costs the EU wants to punish Alexander Lukashenko, the target is missed. Reducing the visa costs is even more relevant bearing in mind that Belarusians have been obtaining the greatest number of Schengen visas per capita in the world in recent years. This fact alone indicates the EU orientation of Belarusians.

It is very important to demolish all artificial barriers at border crossings, in consulates and other institutions. The situation in the country will change only if the society changes and the society will change if there are more contacts between the EU citizens and Belarus citizens.

In the past 19 years there have been 37 EP resolutions exclusively on Belarus and 71 resolutions where the country was discussed among the issues. All these resolutions were reactions to the negative events occurring in the country. This recommendation adopted last week by the Foreign Affairs Committee for the EU Council, the Commission and the EEAS, was the European Parliament’s first attempt in the last 19 years to take a broader look at the country and consider a new strategy for relations.

My motivation to initiate this recommendation in autumn was due to an attitude of some prominent politicians, during unofficial meetings in the European Parliament who mentioned that Belarus is a "lost country” and that EU should focus on the other Eastern Partnership countries. To my mind, Belarus, a country in the centre of Europe, and its 10 million people, should never be lost for Europe.

The difficult situation in the country and its relation to EU, varying opinions between Belarusian oppositionists and among MEPs from different political groups on how to achieve reforms in Belarus made me feel that a broad consensus in the Foreign Affairs committee vote on the recommendation is almost a “mission impossible”. Nevertheless, we reached a compromise for which the contribution of all the shadow rapporteurs - Jacek Protasiewicz (EPP), Johannes van Baalen (LIBE), Werner Schulz (Greens) and Pawel Kowal (ECR)  - was very important.

I always remember the successful recipe of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany which 40 years ago declared and implemented the "Wandel durch Annäherung" (change through rapprochement) policy. Active contacts on different levels with representatives of the GDR and other countries of the Eastern Bloc resulted in changes both in East Germany and throughout the Communist bloc. The democratic changes in Belarus are more likely if this policy is applied; however, there are no guarantees.

We should also take into consideration the fact that the vast majority of opposition parties in Belarus favor a restart of EU-Belarus dialogue as soon as the political prisoners issue is resolved.

With respect to Belarus, the EU can choose one out of three approaches: to be passive and abandon all efforts; to increase the sanctions and risk encouraging the self-isolation of the country; or to restart the dialogue as soon as political prisoners have been released. 

The members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs chose this last option, encouraging the EU to continue its “critical engagement” policy. The unconditional and immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners is an absolute prerequisite for re-establishing good relations. In the adopted recommendation, members of the European Parliament call on the Lithuanian presidency and Eastern Partnership meeting in Vilnius to make use of the chance to improve EU-Belarus relations.

The temporary suspension of Mr Vladimir Makei, the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs, from the list of Belarusian officials banned from entering the EU should be used first and foremost in the negotiations for the release of political prisoners.

Together with another 25 MEPs who tabled amendments to the draft recommendation we stressed that the human rights situation in Belarus is still very difficult, with an atmosphere of repression and harassment. The MEPs urge the EU member states and institutions to look for ways to encourage Minsk to begin democratic reforms, to start dialogue with civil society and the opposition, and to stop obstructing the independent media. They call on the EU to continue supporting Belarusian civil society, dialogue for modernisation and an independent media, and to considerably reduce the price of Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens. 

The European Parliament will discuss and vote on this recommendation in the September plenary session.