EU to Flex New Sanctions Powers on Belarus Over Migrant Flows
(Bloomberg) -- The European Union approved new sanctions powers that allow it to target those involved in orchestrating the flows of migrants through Belarus toward the bloc’s eastern border, as a top official said the movements were already slowing.
The bloc now has the authority to target individuals and entities, such as airlines and travel agencies, that are involved in trying to facilitate illegal crossing of migrants into the EU.
The step would be Europe’s most concrete so far in reaction to Belarus using thousands of migrants from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in what the EU has called a “hybrid attack.” The regime has also threatened to halt the transit of natural gas supplies from Russia to the bloc.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said late Monday that the specfic targets of the new sanctions package will be finalized in the coming days. Earlier in the day, he said that the bloc’s steps have already made a difference on the ground.
“Stopping the flow, stopping the flights is almost done,” he told reporters ahead of a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels. The EU has been negotiating with the countries of origin and transit.
After the meeting, he said he definitely saw Russia’s hand in the actions of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his government.
“Lukashenko is doing what he’s doing because he has the strong support of Russia,” he said. “I don’t believe Lukashenko can be doing what he’s doing without strong support from Russia.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said at a news conference that he also sees evidence that Russia is involved in the crisis, citing an increase in the number of flights via Moscow to Minsk that are compensating for the loss of direct flights from Iraq to Belarus.
Poland, whose 416 kilometer (258 mile) border with Belarus has become the epicenter of the continent’s latest migrant crisis, said on Monday that it’s preparing for “further escalation” over the next days and weeks and reported that hundreds of migrants were moved by Belarusian servicemen to a closed border crossing to Poland.
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.
“We are talking about the fastest possible launch of readmission flights” starting this year, Jablonski said.
Iraq is planning an evacuation flight for its citizens from Belarus in the coming days and is issuing emergency travel 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.
Even with winter approaching the region where temperatures tend to drop well below freezing, Poland won’t budge on its policy of keeping migrants out, he said.
“I can’t imagine a situation in which we would open the border. We know that such a move would only increase the pressure, because Lukashenko would see that he can bring even more people” to the Polish frontier, he added.
Poland has accused Russia of masterminding the flow of people hoping to enter the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that Moscow isn’t behind the migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarus border, but instead is ready to help resolve it.
The 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.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.