EU Leaders Armed With New Sanctions Engage Belarus on Migrants
(Bloomberg) -- European Union leaders urged Russia and Belarus to help ease the flow of thousands of migrants trying to cross the bloc’s eastern border after diplomats in Brussels approved new sanctions to target those orchestrating the arrivals.
The engagement by outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and the approval of wider powers to penalize people and entities such as airlines and travel agencies marked the most concrete steps so far to confront what the 27-nation EU has called a “hybrid attack” from Belarus.
Merkel spoke by phone to Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko about the throngs of people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan ushered by Belarusian troops to the Polish frontier.
Lukashenko threatened earlier this year to open his borders to allow drugs, radioactive material and migrants to flow unhindered in retaliation to EU sanctions, and this week said he could cut off the flow of Russian natural gas to the bloc at the height of Europe’s energy crisis.
Merkel and Lukashenko discussed the “difficult situation on the border between Belarus and the European Union — especially the necessity of humanitarian assistance for the refugees and migrants,” according to a German government spokesman. They agreed to continue dialogue, the spokesman said.
In a separate call, Macron spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the border standoff and Ukraine, where NATO, U.S. and EU officials have expressed concern that the Kremlin may be preparing aggressive action against its neighbor and former Soviet partner.
Macron and Putin agreed to work to de-escalate the situations on the migrants and natural gas and focus on humanitarian aid, the French leader’s office said in a statement.
The phone calls followed the EU’s approval of new sanctioning powers that the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said were already making a difference on the ground.
The bloc now has the authority to target individuals and entities involved in trying to facilitate illegal crossing of migrants into the EU. According to Borrell, specific targets will be finalized in the coming days.
While Putin has denied involvement, Borrell said the Russian leader had a hand in Lukashenko’s actions. President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, which also borders Belarus, said at a news conference that he also sees evidence, including an increase in the number of flights via Moscow to Minsk that are compensating for the loss of direct flights from Iraq to Belarus.
“Stopping the flow, stopping the flights is almost done,” Borrell told reporters ahead of a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels. “I don’t believe Lukashenko can be doing what he’s doing without strong support from Russia.”
Poland, whose 416 kilometer (258 mile) border with Belarus has become the epicenter of the standoff, said on Monday that it’s preparing for “further escalation” over the coming days and weeks and reported that hundreds of migrants were moved by Belarusian soldiers to a closed border crossing.
The government is also in talks with EU partners about flying the would-be migrants back to their countries of origin, Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski told broadcaster Polsat. He added that, even with the freezing temperatures of winter approaching, Poland won’t let any of the people in.
“I can’t imagine a situation in which we would open the border,” Jaoblonski said. “Lukashenko would see that he can bring even more people.”
Iraq is planning an evacuation flight for its citizens from Belarus in the coming days and is issuing emergency documents for those who want to travel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahaf said. Baghdad is unable to estimate how many Iraqis have been caught up in the developments.
The EU ministers added the criteria of aiding and abetting people trafficking as a reason for imposing sanctions. They are finalizing a fifth package of sanctions targeting some 30 individuals and entities.
One of those targets will likely be Belavia, the Belarus national airline, which leases more than half of its 30 planes from Irish companies. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday that Belavia will have to return those planes or likely face legal action.
Additional penalties could be announced -- jointly with the U.S. and possibly the U.K. -- early next month.
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