EU Leaders Face Range of Troubles Outside Their Borders

A chaotic geopolitical map surrounds the European Union as its national leaders meet in Brussels this week to deal with multiple crises at the bloc’s edge.

Leaders gather at a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday. (Johanna Geron, Pool via AP)

(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.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen takes off her protective mask prior to speaking at EU headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. (Johanna Geron, Pool via AP)

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.

Nauseda was optimistic that the EU can get over the hurdle put up by Cyprus and agree on sanctions. The United States is drawing up its own sanctions but reportedly it is waiting for the EU to impose restrictions on Belarus.

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron met Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and called on Lukashenko to release political prisoners, such as Tikhanovskaya’s husband, and hold new elections under international observation.

“We will do our best as Europeans to help mediate,” Macron told reporters. “Our objective is for this mediation to begin in the next few days or weeks.”

But Lukashenko has turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help and shown no willingness to negotiate with the opposition. Instead, security forces have stepped up arrests of protesters. More than 12,000 people have been arrested; still, massive protests continue every weekend across Belarus.

On Monday, Belarus’s most famous person, Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel winner for literature, left her home in Minsk for Germany. She was the last person on an opposition council who had not been arrested. She was traveling to Germany for medical treatment and to Italy to receive a literary award. She said she was not fleeing Belarus and said she would seek to return.

Another major topic for European leaders will be Turkey, a NATO ally that was formerly in talks to become an EU member. But relations between Turkey and the EU have fallen apart and are in deep trouble.

The sources of friction are many. The EU is unsettled by what it sees as an aggressive Islamist foreign policy pursued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s military interventions in Syria and Libya have drawn the ire of the EU. But the EU’s biggest contention is over Turkey’s moves to explore for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean off the shores of Cyprus and Greek islands.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

It is unlikely that the EU will take strong action against Turkey at this summit. France, Austria, Greece and Cyprus are seeking a tougher line on Turkey and the imposition of tougher sanctions on Turkey but others, most prominently Germany, are eager for negotiations.

Russia looms large over the summit too since the poisoning of Navalny, who left a Berlin hospital last week. EU leaders have condemned Russia for the alleged attack on Navalny, who fell sick aboard an airplane in Siberia on Aug. 20.

German experts say they found evidence that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. In an interview with Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, Navalny charged that Putin was behind the poisoning. The Kremlin has denied the allegations and Russian doctors who first treated him said he was not poisoned.

“I assert that Putin is behind this act, I don’t see any other explanation,” Navalny said in an interview published Thursday.

Germany is coming under a lot of pressure – from within the country and from outside – to punish Russia by stopping a major gas pipeline from Russia, the Nord Stream 2. The pipeline runs under the Baltic Sea and it is nearly completed.

War has also suddenly become part of the summit’s agenda after fighting erupted over the weekend between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a long-running territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Both sides have issued videos showing missiles blowing tanks up and about 100 people have reportedly been killed, including civilians.

The mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region is officially part of Azerbaijan but separatist ethnic Christian Armenians govern it. The dispute goes back decades to when Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Soviet Union. The area became an autonomous region within the republic of Azerbaijan under the Soviet Union but it is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

The conflict draws in Europe’s big powers too with Russia backing Armenian claims and Turkey backing Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic and Muslim nation with strong cultural and economic ties to Turkey. The eruption of conflict threatens to draw in Russia and Turkey.

Both the Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan on Thursday dismissed calls for a ceasefire from France, the U.S. and Russia, three powers that co-chair the Minsk Group, a forum of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe seeking to end the dispute peacefully.

Turkey also rejected the call for a ceasefire and said the Minsk Group had failed to deal with the problem for too long and that the region was illegally occupied by Armenia. Turkey is accused of sending Syrian mercenaries to fight.

On Wednesday, Macron accused Turkey of being “reckless and dangerous” for supporting Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war from 1988 to 1994 over the territory that left about 30,000 people dead and displaced about 1 million people. Azerbaijan accuses the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh of forcefully removing Azeris. The two sides have clashed previously, but experts fear this new round of fighting may not be quickly contained.

Laurence Broers, a South Caucasus expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, called it a new war that “represents a major inflection point” in the three-decade old conflict.

In an analysis, he said the scale of the fighting is “the worst since 1994.” He said at least a dozen civilians have been killed and that missiles have damaged civilian infrastructure.

“Militarily speaking, it is clear that this is an Azerbaijani offensive,” he said, adding Azerbaijan is apparently seeking to recapture large areas.

Broers said this conflict was more evidence of a “of a wider regional and global shift” away from a “unipolar international order led by the United States” to a “multipolar order contested by a number of global and regional powers.”

He added that this shift leaves regional powers like Russia and Turkey “intervening in numerous theatres of conflict across the Middle East, while the United States disengages.”

With both sides appearing ready to dig in for a longer fight, European leaders will be tested as they try to come up with a strategy to help resolve this conflict at its backdoor.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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