(CN) — Across the English Channel, there's the headache of Brexit. Next door in Belarus, pro-democracy protests are stamped upon by a dictatorship reminiscent of Europe's dark past.
Across the sea from Italy, a civil war in Libya's desert drags on, driving more refugees to Europe. In the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey and Greece spar over natural gas reserves and engage in bellicose talk and naval confrontations.
Russia, meanwhile, poses a new set of challenges for European Union leaders after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a main opposition figure. If that wasn't enough, fighting has erupted on the southeastern fringe of Europe between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This is a snapshot of the chaotic geopolitical map surrounding the EU as its national leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to deal with multiple crises at the bloc's edge at a moment when a fractured EU is seeking to find a new and more assertive role for itself on a fragmenting world stage.
On Thursday, the EU made its first move on this complex chess board: It said it will take legal action against the United Kingdom unless it withdraws draft legislation that overrides the terms of a treaty the U.K. signed with the EU over its exit from the bloc.
Crucially, the withdrawal agreement keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU in order to preserve the freedom of movement of people, services and goods between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland. But the draft legislation pushed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could override those terms and, if enacted, amount to a violation of international law. Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland admitted the bill breaks international law in a “specific and limited way.”
“This draft bill is, by its very nature, a breach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the withdrawal agreement,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference Thursday morning. “Moreover, if adopted as is, it will be in full contradiction to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
But it's the issue of Belarus that will top the agenda for EU leaders.
Protests have continued for more than 50 days in Belarus and are showing no sign of letting up even as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko orders a crackdown. The protests broke out after Lukashenko was declared the winner of a presidential election on Aug. 9. EU leaders say the election was rigged to allow Lukashenko to continue his 26-year rule.
The EU has spoken out harshly against Lukashenko and the brutal clamp down on protests, including allegations of widespread torture of detained demonstrators. The EU has not yet imposed sanctions on Belarus, but it could move to do so at this meeting. On Tuesday, the U.K. and Canada imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and other members of his regime.
Frustration is boiling over that the EU hasn't already imposed sanctions.
The problem is that EU decision-making on foreign affairs requires unanimity among all 27 member states and the small island nation of Cyprus has blocked sanctions against Belarus, saying it will only support such action if the EU also imposes new sanctions on Turkey.
Cyprus and Greece are angry at Turkey for sending warships to accompany gas drilling exploration operations in their waters. Turkey, whose maritime boundaries are hemmed in by Greek islands close to its shores, is laying claim to vast sections of the Mediterranean, sparking tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. But Cyprus is being criticized for holding EU foreign policy hostage.
“The situation in Belarus is deteriorating. We have continuing violations of human rights, we have detained people, tortured people,” said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda at the summit. Lithuania is hosting Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition leader who fled Belarus after the election.