BRUSSELS • The European Union has a problem right on its doorstep, and it might just be the excuse it has been waiting for to at last speak up.
When the bloc’s 27 leaders interrupt their summer breaks to hold a conference call today on the violent aftermath of the presidential election in Belarus, there is more than just the latest anti-democratic outrage at stake.
The suspected rigged election in the former Soviet republic gives the EU an opportunity to show what sort of role it wants to play in an evolving world.
Since emerging from a decade of internal crises – from euro-area debt chaos to Britain becoming the first country to leave the bloc – the EU has found itself caught in a struggle between the United States and China, and with its old foe Russia still causing trouble.
No longer able, and in some cases willing, to piggyback onto American power, the EU wants to strike out on its own.
“What we have witnessed in Belarus is not acceptable,” European Council president Charles Michel, who will chair the video conference, said in a letter to the leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
But aside from symbolism, there is a ceiling to what they can do and toughening the rhetoric remains their main arsenal.
The bloc’s foreign ministers have already agreed to start working on sanctions, though leaders may push to expedite them.
The EU’s leadership believes the response to the situation has been too muted, in particular on the role that Russian President Vladimir Putin might play in shoring up Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, said an EU official.
“There should be no outside interference,” Mr Michel made a point of saying in his letter.
Eastern European countries geographically close to Belarus such as Poland and the Baltic states pushed for the call, arranged for noon Brussels time today, but Mr Michel needed little persuasion.
He and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen started their mandates at the end of last year with teams that reflected a new-found focus on international issues and although the coronavirus pandemic has stymied their plans, that vision has not altered.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has shown a willingness in the past to speak his mind, even though he has limited powers.
“These peaceful demonstrations had clear demands: the release of all unlawfully detained people, the prosecution of those responsible for police brutality, and holding of new presidential elections,” Mr Borrell said on Monday.
“The sheer numbers clearly show that the Belarusian population want change, and want it now. The EU stands by them.”
The call will be as much about showing how the EU can act when it believes a line has been crossed, one EU official said, and its willingness to directly take on Mr Putin.
Another added that while the outcome needs to be more than a mere statement, there is a balancing act between taking measures that send a strong signal and steps that are counter-productive and make a negotiated solution harder.