European Union External Action

Belarus and the EU

11/05/2016 - 14:51
EU relations with Country

Summary

EU-Belarus relations are based on respect for common values, especially respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. After the release of political prisoners in Belarus in 2015, the relationship between the EU and Belarus improved. The February 2016 Council Conclusions laid out the EU policy on Belarus. This resulted in the lifting of the majority of individual restrictive measures, enhanced policy dialogue and increased financial assistance, including through international financial institutions (EIB and EBRD). Negotiations on EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities also began in 2016 and were aimed at strengthening the bilateral relationship and setting the strategic framework for cooperation. Belarus has been an active participant in the multilateral format of the Eastern Partnership initiative. EU-Belarus Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements came into force on 1 July 2020.

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. As a result, on 2 October 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on 40 individuals responsible for repression and election falsification, and on 12 October the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted new Conclusions on Belarus. An in-depth review of EU-Belarus relations is ongoing in line with these Conclusions.

 
 

Until October 2020, the EU's relations with Belarus were guided by the Council Conclusions of 15 February 2016. Tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal freedoms, the rule of law, and human rights, remain fundamental criteria for shaping the EU's future policy towards Belarus.

The release of the remaining political prisoners from Belarusian jails on 22 August 2015 was a positive turningpoint 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. The package included cooperation with international financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) (link is external) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (link is external), enhanced preparations for World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession, and the removal of textile quotas for exports.

The remaining restrictive measures (an embargo on arms and equipment that could be used for internal repressionan 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 currently in place until 28 February 2021.

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. In line with the EU’s gradual approach, the EU stands ready to take further restrictive measures.

In this 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 accordingly. 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 will be finalised in line with these conclusions.

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 all levels. The takes place annually since 2015 with the most recent dialogue held in June 2019. Civil society representatives participate in these meetings.

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.

The EU has been the largest grant donor in Belarus. Since 2016, the EU’s financial allocation for Belarus has amounted to €30 million annual grant assistance, with a current portfolio standing close to €135 million , aiming at improving the quality of life of Belarusian citizens in a tangible and visible manner.  This support is funded from the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) for the period 2014-2020.

Additional funds are available from other EU thematic instruments, focused on promotion of human rights and civil society. For more information on financial cooperation, please see here: Belarus Page of DG NEAR (European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations)

 

The EU is committed to strengthening the engagement with the Belarusian people and civil society and in the last years support to Belarus in education, mobility, youth and the facilitation of people-to-people contacts has been growing.

The EU-Belarus Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements entered into force on 1 July 2020, paving the way for improved mobility of citizens, contributing to closer people-to-people contacts between the EU and its Eastern Partnership neighbours.

The visa facilitation agreement makes it easier for Belarusian citizens to acquire visas to come to the European Union. For all citizens of Belarus, regardless of their travel purpose or type of passport, the visa fee is reduced to €35, the service fee is lowered to €30 and the deadline for consulates to take a decision on a visa application is shortened to no more than 10 days. In addition, for some categories of travellers, such as businesspeople, journalists, representatives of civil society organisations, members of official delegations and several others, the visa fee is altogether waived, there are less documents requested as evidence for purpose of travel, and they are eligible for multiple-entry visas for a longer duration (up to 5 years). Holders of new biometric diplomatic passports will be exempt from the visa obligation altogether.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary restrictions in place for non-essential travels to the EU Member States should be taken into account when planning a journey to the Schengen area.

The readmission agreement established, on the basis of reciprocity, procedures for the safe and orderly return of persons who reside irregularly in the EU or Belarus, in full respect of their rights under international law. Belarus has unilaterally introduced measures to facilitate short-term visa-free travel for EU citizens arriving in Minsk.

A Mobility Partnership between the EU, Belarus and seven participating EU Member States (Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Finland and Latvia) was signed on 13 October 2016. The Mobility Partnership provides a framework for dialogue in various areas of migration and is considered by partner countries as a complementary tool for cooperation and funding in the framework of bilateral and regional relations. Mobility Partnership Facility (MPF), under AMIF (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund) and ISF (Internal Security Fund), has supported several actions in Belarus including the elaboration of a Migration Policy for Belarus and activities related to border management and management of irregular migration capacity building for improved cooperation with neighbouring EU Member States.

Belarus has a working arrangement with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) for operational cooperation and participates in different initiatives on Integrated Border Management, capacity building or training and in the information exchange through the Eastern Partnership Risk analysis network.

The EU support combines different tools, such as Erasmus+ (Tempus), research and cooperation programme (currently Horizon 2020), EU4youth (link is external), Vocational Education and Training Programme, European School for Eastern Partnership  in Georgia (link is external), Scholarship Scheme for young Belarusians. Since 2014 a dedicated mobility programme "MOST (link is external)" was launched to promote mobility of Belarusian professionals, who wish to establish contacts in the EU countries.

EU's support to civil society remains strong, as it is a cornerstone of a well-functioning and prosperous society. On 11 September 2018 EU and 17 Minsk based EU Member states adopted "EU Roadmap for engagement with civil society" for the period of 2018-2020.

The European Union is Belarus' 2ndtrading partner with a share of almost a quarter of the  country's overall trade. EU-Belarus bilateral trade in goods has been growing steadily over the past years. Belarus' exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels, while the EU exports mainly machinery, transport equipment and chemicals to Belarus.

The EU and Belarus have established a formal Dialogue on Trade, which gathers twice a year in order to exchange on a regular basis, including on domestic regulations and other trade concerns. This dialogue also offers a platform to reflect on relevant opportunities to improve mutual trade. The EU supports Belarus’ WTO accession process which would contribute to the creation of a more predictable and stable business environment in the country, which is a necessary condition to attract investors and diversify the Belarusian economy. The European Union is providing technical assistance to help with this process through the TAIEX twinning instrument.

In recent years, the lending mandate of the European Investment Bank (EIB) (link is external) has been extended to include Belarus, while the financing activities of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (link is external) have also been extended. Since 2016, the EIB has committed €530 million to support private sector and small and medium enterprises, key infrastructure and climate action projects.

The EU-Belarus Customs Dialogue, initiated in 2016, continues on an annual basis and is aimed at monitoring and identifying possible cooperation and assistance activities with a view to facilitating trade, ensuring supply chain security and safety, and combating fraud. In December 2019, the EU Council adopted negotiating directives for a Customs Cooperation and Mutual Administrative Assistance Agreement with Belarus and in 2020 the negotiating texts have been exchanged. The first round of negotiations were expected to take place in autumn of 2020. Such an agreement will aim to improve the application of customs legislation, reducing customs fraud, especially tobacco smuggling, and is expected to contribute to higher levels of customs and tax revenues in the EU.

Sectoral dialogues on economic and financial issues as well as environment and climate action take place on an annual basis. The EU is stepping up the implementation of a number of measures that will enhance EU-Belarus relations in several fields related to the economy, trade, and energy. The Strengthening Private Initiative Growth in Belarus (SPRING) Programme backs private local economic initiatives in order to develop the private sector, increase job creation, and promote economic growth in Belarus. EU support also includes a large-scale business consultancy programme implemented by the EBRD and a project supporting the development of employment-generating strategies and eco-systems to support SMEs and entrepreneurship at the local level, implemented by the UNDP.

Other EU initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors East – Phase II (link is external) and Mayors for Economic Growth projects offer grant support to local authorities most active in adopting pilot measures in energy efficiency and job creation, reinforcing the roles of local authorities in economic development.

On 19 June 2017, Belarus joined the Eastern Europe Energy Efficiency and Environment Partnership (E5P) (link is external). This Trust Fund, managed by the EBRD, supports loans for municipal sector projects across the Eastern Partnership countries on energy efficiency and the environment.

Belarus is one of the strongest-performing Eastern Partnership countries in the Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation. In the 2018-2020 Work Programme for Horizon 2020, almost €200 million have been allocated to a series of calls focusing on energy and resource efficiency in the process industry ("SPIRE") with a particular geographical focus on the Eastern Partnership countries.

The respect of the highest nuclear safety standards is a key priority for the EU, especially since new facilities are being constructed so close to EU borders, and the EU expects Belarus to cooperate constructively with the relevant international authorities. In 2018, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) carried out a peer review of Belarus’s nuclear safety stress test report for the Ostrovets nuclear power plant. ENSREG experts are now conducting a peer review of the implementation of the recommendations made in the 2018 report.

The EU has been supporting the Belarusian nuclear regulatory authority with technical assistance since 2013 under the Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC) with more than €11 million allocated so far. This cooperation is important for the nuclear power plant under construction in Ostrovets (Astraviec) in Belarus.

 

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