Over the past two years, however, there has been progress in EU–Belarus relations. Belarus has been participating more pro-actively in the Eastern Partnership, in particular in the multilateral formats, negotiations on a Mobility Partnership were concluded and negotiations on a Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements are underway. Tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal freedoms, the rule of law, and human rights, including fundamental labour rights, will remain fundamental criteria for the shaping of the EU's future policy towards Belarus, as stated in the Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions of 15 February 2016.
On the initiative of Belarus, the annual EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue resumed in July 2015. The most recent Dialogue was held in July 2017. On 22 August 2015, the remaining political prisoners were released from Belarusian jails. The EU welcomed this long-sought step, which represents an important milestone in relations between the EU and Belarus. The EU lifted most of the restrictive measures in February 2016, also activating a key package of economic and other cooperation-related measures. The package includes cooperation with international financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), enhanced preparations for World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession, and the removal of textile quotas for exports. The remaining restrictive measures (the arms embargo and the restrictive measures against the four individuals listed in connection with unresolved disappearances) are currently in place until 28 February 2018. All decisions regarding EU restrictive measures require unanimity among the 28 EU Member States.
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. Four executions were carried out in 2016 and one in 2017 (situation as of 6 November 2017). Four people are currently on death row in Belarus and the last two death sentences were handed down on 21 July 2017. 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 EU repeatedly raises human rights issues, including the death penalty, with the Belarusian authorities at all levels. The remaining death sentences should be commuted and a moratorium introduced as a first step towards its abolition.
The EU-Belarus Coordination Group was established in 2016 to provide a forum for a policy dialogue at the level of senior officials. The Coordination Group steers cooperation between the EU and Belarus and oversees the further development of relations. The first meeting took place in April 2016 in Brussels. Since then, there have been another two meetings, held in Minsk (16-17 November 2016 and 3-4 April 2017). During each meeting, in keeping with the European Union's policy of cooperation and involvement of civil society, the EU encourages Belarusian authorities to consult widely with all stakeholders. Special attention is also given to the promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms, in particular the abolition of the death penalty, the fight against torture and ill-treatment, and the freedom of expression and assembly. The Belarus 'National Action Plan on Human Rights', adopted in October 2016, underpins the process of domestic reforms and the legislative amendments. The EU stands ready to support this process.