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Greek PM: EU leaders must show unity on Belarus

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Greek PM: EU leaders must show unity on Belarus

Two-day Brussels summit takes on added urgency after Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius forced to land in Minsk 

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, says EU’s inability to agree a joint statement over the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas must not be repeated over Belarus © STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Good morning to all Europe watchers.

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko sent a shockwave across the continent yesterday by forcing a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk and arresting a critic who was on board.

EU leaders are due to meet tonight and tomorrow in Brussels for a European Council summit and we will be looking at their options.

In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Europe Express that leaders at the summit must agree on “clear, specific and robust consequences that leave Belarus in no doubt about our unity and our determination”.

The European Council is also meant to cover topics including Russia, Brexit, and climate change. On the latter topic, we look at where the potential for discord lies when it comes to the EU’s proposed emissions targets.

And we also examine the World Health Organization assembly, which is likely to get the ball rolling on a global treaty on pandemic preparedness (an idea for which Charles Michel, EU Council President, takes credit).

This article is an on-site version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning

Hijacked summit

The EU’s patchy record in presenting a united front on foreign affairs must not be repeated when it comes to Belarus’s “unacceptable act of aggression”, Greece’s Mitsotakis told Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens.

“Our inability to reach a consensus on recent events in Israel and Gaza — where as a union we failed to present a unified stance — must not be repeated,” he said.

Before Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire last week to end their latest round of hostilities, the EU was unable to issue a joint statement calling for just such a truce due to opposition from Hungary. EU foreign affairs decisions require unanimity.

The Greek prime minister made clear the EU cannot afford to show such disunity over Belarus.

“The forcible grounding of a commercial passenger aircraft in order to illegally detain a political opponent and journalist is utterly reprehensible and an unacceptable act of aggression that cannot be allowed to stand,” Mitsotakis said, calling for clear, specific and robust consequences.

We must reach a swift and unanimous condemnation, with clear, specific and robust consequences that leave Belarus in no doubt about our unity and our determination. 

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek prime minister

“We cannot accept anything else as a Union of principles. Enough is enough.”

The move by Lukashenko to capture activist Roman Protasevich triggered widespread condemnation and vows of retaliation from other EU leaders.

It will also accelerate the nosedive in relations between the EU and Belarus, which the European bloc had once hoped to attract from Russia’s orbit.

But what might the EU’s retaliation look like?

The bloc has already imposed sanctions on the Belarusian strongman and scores of other officials and institutions over last year’s disputed presidential election and the political crackdown that followed, write Michael Peel and Sam Fleming in Brussels. That reversed a 2016 move by the EU to lift punitive measures on 170 people, including Lukashenko, involved in earlier rights abuses.

Further EU sanctions were already being worked up against more Belarus officials before yesterday’s forced landing. But they are geared to official repression and would probably also be seen as an inadequate response to the latest events.

The options for EU leaders when they hold their discussions tonight include:

  • A new set of sanctions responding to the incident

  • An international inquiry

  • Stopping EU airlines from flying over Belarus

  • Barring Belarus’s airline Belavia from landing at any EU airport

  • Wider restrictions on transit between the country and the EU

Belarus is still part of the “Eastern Partnership” the EU has with the country and five other states close to Russia’s border. But yesterday’s incident suggests it has become a partnership barely worthy of the name.

Climate challenges

EU leaders spent their traditional end-of-year Brussels summit last December toiling all night over the bloc’s promise to accelerate carbon emission cuts in the next decade. 

Summit organisers were desperate to avoid a repeat of the 10-hour marathon talks this week, so they scheduled the discussion for tomorrows session, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

The run-up to the summit has been dominated by testy talks between EU ambassadors, once again exposing the rifts between poorer and richer countries which were laid bare at the end of last year. Here’s the FT’s take on the plethora of topics that have member states at loggerheads. 

The green energy transition is exposing rifts between the bloc’s richer and poorer countries © AP

At the heart of the EU debate is how to share the burden of an unprecedented programme of decarbonisation over the next 30 years. The distributional debates are about the divide between the bloc’s poorer and richer country as well as the impact that going green could have on Europe’s most vulnerable households.

Leaders battled over the relatively simple part of setting headline emissions targets in December: reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 and achieving net zero output by 2050. Now, Brussels and its governments have to decide how to design the regulation, taxation instruments and investment schemes to ensure those targets become a reality.

EU diplomats expect the summit to act as a useful venting session for leaders, where they will be able to make clear what they want — and do not want — to see from the European Commission’s July bonanza of 12 legislative proposals to make the bloc “fit for 55 per cent” cuts. 

Poorer and higher polluting countries in southern and eastern Europe are pushing for compensatory mechanisms such as subsidies and welfare schemes to help cushion the blow. Poland is leading the charge, demanding a higher share of revenues from the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme for households struggling to end their reliance on coal for heating or ditching diesel and petrol cars.

Another summit flashpoint will how be best to impose emissions targets on swaths of the economy. The EU has two big tools at its disposal: legally-binding national targets (known as Effort Sharing); and its market-driven ETS, which charges companies a price for polluting. 

One of the commission’s most contested plans is to extend the ETS to new sectors such as cars and the heating of buildings — a move that will expose consumers to Europe’s record carbon price.

But the expansion could have unintended consequences. 

New research from Cambridge Econometrics, the analysts, suggests the expanded ETS will have a negative impact on the economy by dramatically increasing pump and heating prices for large parts of Europe’s population. The only way to mitigate the adverse effects, they and many governments in Europe argue, is to put the carbon price revenues directly back into the pockets of consumers. 

Chart du jour: Bitcoin ‘dirty’ mining

Energy-intense mining of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin is becoming a growing concern for climate officials. The UN is backing the “Crypto Climate Accord” initiative, led by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy non-profit organisation. The programme aims to ensure that future blockchain-based projects are designed to consume less energy. (Read more here)

Treaty on pandemics

European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will make an appearance at the World Health Organization’s annual assembly starting on Monday and ending on June 1, writes Valentina Pop in Brussels. 

Reform proposals have been put forward in recent months including by an independent panel commissioned by the Geneva-based body to scrutinise the global response to the pandemic. Its conclusion: the outbreak could have been stopped with a swift international response.

Among the recommendations made is tightening an existing rule book on pandemic preparedness and enshrine it in an international treaty — or convention — a proposal Charles Michel, EU Council president, first made in November 2020 and that is backed by a big coalition of countries. But there are a few important fence-sitters, notably the US, Russia and China. 

The WHO assembly is set to give its green light tomorrow or Wednesday to a working group which will examine the pros and cons of such a convention, according to an EU official familiar with the talks.

Instead of launching the negotiations on a treaty next week, countries sceptical of an international treaty have managed to delay a decision until November. That is when a special WHO assembly will congregate again to hear from the working group and decide whether to start the discussions. 

Under the initial proposal, the convention would not only lay out stricter pandemic preparedness and response benchmarks but also touch on keeping supply chains open and establishing an equitable vaccine and drugs distribution system. 

A precedent exists in a 2003 WHO convention on tobacco control — which the US never signed — that includes provisions on taxation, packaging warnings and measures to clamp down on illicit trade and sales to minors. 

But as with any international treaty, a WHO convention on pandemic preparedness would take years before it came into force. And the more issues the convention seeks to address, the more complicated negotiations will turn out to be.

Two things to watch on Monday

  1. EU leaders gather in person for a two-day summit in Brussels

  2. The World Health Organization starts its virtual week-long assembly in Geneva

. . . and later this week

  1. The Dutch parliament votes on the EU Own Resources Decision needed to fuel the Recovery Fund on Thursday

  2. Foreign ministers meet for an informal council on Thursday, and defence ministers gather on Friday

  3. EU-Japan summit takes place virtually on Thursday

Notable, Quotable

We are not going to stop the terrorists from killing people just by preaching

Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
  • The EU can arm allied governments in conflict zones for the first time, through a new fund called the European Peace Facility. The move is a big step in the bloc’s efforts to project more “hard power” — and a contentious one. (Read more here)

  • EU finance ministers met in Lisbon on Saturday and expressed broad support for an upcoming Europe-wide tax on kerosene jet fuel, as part of bloc’s ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets.

  • Germany’s Christian Democrats fear an internal hard-right movement similar to the Tea Party in the US, as multiple centrist candidates are sidelined in favour of ultraconservatives ahead of elections in September. (Der Spiegel)

  • Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa follows Hungary’s Viktor Orban down an authoritarian path, turning on judges and the media ahead of country assuming EU presidency in July. (Read more here)

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Today’s Europe Express team: eleni.varvitsioti@ft.com, michael.peel@ft.com, mehreen.khan@ft.com, sam.fleming@ft.com valentina.pop@ft.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Elbarbie, @Mikepeeljourno, @Sam1Fleming, @MehreenKhn, @valentinapop

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