EU considers sanctions against Belarus over hijacked plane

European leaders meet in person this evening for the first time since December

2 min
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President David Sassoli and Portuguese President António Costa.

BrusselsThis evening's meeting in Brussels is the first face-to-face meeting of European Union heads of state and government since December, and at the last minute Belarus has been squeezed into an agenda that was already fraught with foreign policy conflicts. Yesterday Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko forced the diversion of a Ryanair commercial airliner flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich. Reactions in the European Union were swift and forceful. The High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, quickly warned that the EU would consider "all the consequences", which could range from extending the list of sanctions already in place against Belarus to banning the Belarusian state airline from using European airports, as proposed by the Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo. It remains to be seen, however, whether there is unanimity to go this far.

"The incident will not go without consequences", warned the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, in a statement Sunday evening condemning the Belarusian action. Even more direct was the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who said on Twitter that "those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be punished". Indeed, the diverted flight belonged to the low-cost Irish company Ryanair, which described the action as "piracy", words also used by the Irish government. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary has gone further, calling the episode a "state" hijacking because there were also KGB agents on the plane, as he explained on the Newstalk radio station. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney confirmed that there were "five or six people" who left the plane, although only one was arrested.

"I think if the European Union does not give a firm and direct response, Belarus could interpret it as a sign of weakness", Coveney added. Spanish diplomatic sources have also described the episode as "unacceptable" and consider that there is consensus in the Union to support sanctions and even measures involving flight restrictions on European territory. For starters, the first thing the High Representative of the European Union announced on Monday is the opening of an investigation, which has also been requested by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has warned that the diversion of the flight violates the rules of the Chicago Convention, which dates from 1944 and is the most important treaty in relation to international public aviation law.

As Efe news agency recalls, the European Union was already considering a second round of sanctions against the Belarusian regime before this incident, as Borrell had explained in statements to this agency. Last October, EU leaders sweated to agree sanctions against 40 members of Lukashenko's regime, in a debate poisoned by demands for reciprocity with Turkey by Greece and Cyprus. The Union did not recognise the outcome of the 2020 elections in the country and accused Lukashenko of having rigged the polls. In addition, the EU institutions also welcomed several times the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who called for more forcefulness against the repression in her country.

This issue has therefore become one of the main topics of a summit that begins this evening at 7pm in the form of a dinner and will continue tomorrow. The leaders will address foreign policy issues on the first day, such as relations with Russia and the conflict in Gaza. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is also expected to raise the need to discuss the migration pact, which has been stalled for years, this summer. Tomorrow the heads of state and government will focus on the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.