Tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal freedoms, the rule of law, and human rights are fundamental criteria for shaping the EU's policy towards Belarus.
Until October 2020, the EU's relations with Belarus were guided by the Council Conclusions of 15 February 2016. The release of the remaining political prisoners from Belarusian jails on 22 August 2015 was a positive turning point and contributed to the EU’s decision to lift most of the restrictive measures in February 2016, also activating a key package of economic and other cooperation-related measures.
However, the overall human rights, democracy and rule of law situation in Belarus significantly deteriorated in the run-up, conduct and aftermath of the 9 August 2020 Presidential elections, which the EU has declared neither free nor fair. On 2 October 2020, 40 persons identified as responsible for repression and intimidation against peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, as well as for misconduct of the electoral process, were added to the existing restrictive measures. Further, on 6 November 2020 the Council added 15 members of the Belarusian authorities, including Alexandr Lukashenko as well as his son and National Security Adviser Viktor Lukashenko, to the list. As the human rights situation and the rule of law continued to deteriorate, a further 36 listings were added to the sanctions list, including 7 entities supporting the regime and benefitting from it on 17 December.
These restrictive measures (which also include an embargo on arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression; as well as an asset freeze and a travel ban against four people listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, one businessman and one journalist in 1999 and in 2000) are in place until 28 February 2021, when an annual review will be carried out. In line with the EU’s gradual approach, the EU stands ready to adopt further restrictive measures.
In the above context, on 12 October 2020, the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted new Conclusions on Belarus. They indicate that the EU will scale down bilateral cooperation with the Belarusian authorities at central level, increase its support for the Belarusian people and civil society, and recalibrate its bilateral financial assistance to the maximum possible extent away from central authorities and towards non-state, local and regional actors, including through cross-border cooperation programmes. The EU has immediately made available additional financial resources for victims of violence, civil society organisations and independent media.
The conclusions also highlight that the EU is ready to substantially step up its political engagement, sectoral cooperation, and financial assistance to Belarus provided that its authorities respect the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, by stopping repression and abuses, promoting a serious, credible and inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections under the OSCE/ODIHR's observation, and providing guarantees for respect for human rights.
Finally, the EU calls on the Belarusian authorities to engage in an inclusive national dialogue and stands ready to support a peaceful democratic transition with a variety of instruments, including a comprehensive plan of economic support for a democratic Belarus. An in-depth review of EU-Belarus relations was conducted in line with these conclusions. As a result of this review, most bilateral dialogue formats are put on hold.
The European Union takes the situation regarding human rights and democracy in Belarus very seriously, especially when it comes to the freedom of assembly and association, fundamental labour standards, and freedom of speech and the media. Belarus is the only country in Europe where the death penalty is still in use. The European Union has an unequivocal stance regarding the death penalty, which violates the right to life and is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The remaining death sentences should be commuted and a moratorium introduced as a first step towards its abolition. The EU repeatedly raises human rights issues, including the death penalty, with the Belarusian authorities at the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, with the participation of the Belarusian civil society. The dialogue takes place annually since 2015 with the most recent dialogue held in June 2019.
Belarus has participated actively in the multilateral formats of the Eastern Partnership. In 2019 Belarus hosted a number of technical level meetings on spectrum coordination, benchmarking of telecom markets, development of broadband strategies as well as a panel on migration and integrated border management. In 2018, the 10th round of informal ministerial dialogues took place in Minsk. In line with the October 2020 Council Conclusions, the EU will maintain cooperation with Belarus within the Eastern Partnership multilateral framework at non-political level and intensify cooperation with key non-state Belarusian stakeholders.
Negotiations on the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities (PPs) started in 2016 and are currently on hold.
The EU-Belarus Coordination Group was established in 2016 to provide a forum for policy dialogue at the level of senior officials. In line with the European Union's policy of cooperation and involvement of civil society, part of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group meeting involves selected participants of the Belarusian civil society. The Coordination Group steers cooperation between the EU and Belarus and oversees the further development of relations. The latest Coordination Group meeting took place on 17-18 December 2019. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, an ad-hoc meeting of EU and Belarusian senior officials took place on 23 July 2020. Following the review of EU-Belarus relations, the meetings of the Coordination Group have been put on hold until further notice.