The EU’s credibility was on the line as delegates met on October 1 in Brussels to discuss a slew of headaches plaguing the Union.
Top of the agenda was what to do about Turkey: the rhetoric on the need to “do something” about Turkey has been ratcheting up in recent months as Ankara continues to make trouble, meddling in Syria, Libya and now openly backing Azerbaijan, which has attacked the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the worst military clash between the two enemies Baku and Yerevan since the 2016 four-day war.
However, the question on the docket for the summit was a dispute over exploration and exploitation of gas fields in the disputed waters off Cyprus.
The EU’s line on Turkey is hardening. French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most outspoken and has showered Ankara with stinging criticism.
Macron said Europe needed "a more united and clear voice" on Turkey, which is "no longer a partner" in September. Macron categorised the drilling for gas near Cyprus as "inadmissible practices" that are "not worthy of a great state".
"We Europeans must be clear and firm, not with Turkey as a nation and a people, but with the government of President Erdogan, which today has had unacceptable actions," Macron said at a press conference ahead of a Southern European summit.
The showdown over the gas field has the potential of blowing up into a major political crisis. Greece and Turkey, both of whom are members of NATO, have deployed naval forces to the area and Athens says it intends to extend its territorial waters from six to 12 nautical miles, which would put a large gas field find that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently announced inside Greek territorial waters.
Macron said Europe needed to clarify their "red line" and to re-engage with Turkey. The EU has previously tried to mediate with Turkey over the drilling activities.
Despite the rising tensions the EU has been unable to act, as it can’t find a consensus on what to do.
“This is an appeasement policy, but the appeasement policy leads to much more greater expansionist policy by Turkey, so we do have tools and I think one of them can be very effective: economic sanctions, especially through the customs union," says Cyprus MEP Costas Mavrides from the Socialists and Democrats, as cited by euronews.
According to an EU source speaking ahead of the summit, "all options" remain on the table, including sanctions, but leaders are not expected to announce formal sanctions when the summit ends on October 2.
The EU is also riven over taking actions on Belarus. While the vocal condemnation of Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko has been loud and constant after he massively falsified the August 9 presidential election to hand himself a landslide victory, the EU has failed to find a consensus to take any concrete action. And the way the EU works is it that needs unanimity to impose sanctions.
There was a vote earlier this month but the decision to impose sanctions was vetoed by Cyprus, which was under pressure from Russia, with which it has significant business ties.
Macron has been outspoken on Belarus too and met with former English teacher and nominal victor in Belarus’ presidential election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius this week to show solidarity with the Belarusian opposition.
The meeting with Macron follows a week where Tikhanovskaya was in Brussels to meet with top EU diplomats to lobby them for help. She hinted that the EU had offered a “serious” economic aid package should the protesters emerge from the conflict with Lukashenko victorious but gave no details. If this happens then it will have to be more than €1bn of aid proposed by the Polish Prime Minister. As Gunter Deuber, head of research at Raiffeisen Research in Vienna, wrote in an op-ed for bne IntelliNews, Belarus needs a minimum of €5bn to stabilise the economy and something north of €20bn to develop.
And Lukashenko should have made the task of imposing sanctions easy, as he has managed to alienate almost the entire Western world with his secret inauguration on September 23.
But the EU’s credibility is on the line, as so far it has come down to individual states to impose sanctions. Poland and the Baltic states have already imposed their own sanctions in the first few weeks. The UK and Canada followed up with more sanctions on September 30. However, the EU as a whole needs to act if it is going to be taken seriously in both Minsk and Moscow.
“I think this is the very final point, kind of decisive moment to agree," said Lithuanian MEP Petras Austrevicius, who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee, as cited by euronews. "If our leaders fail it will be, I don’t know how to describe it, a disaster, a clear disaster. How can the European Union call itself a global player if it is unable to move simple things in its immediate neighbourhood?"
Meanwhile, the oppression in Belarus continues to get worse. In the latest twist, Belarusian female basketball star Alena Levchanka was arrested at the airport in Minsk on September 30 as she was about to board a plane to Germany, where she was due to undergo medical treatment and rehabilitation. She was charged with participating in mass rallies and is being held in pre-trial detention.
Levchenko is a member of the independent movement of SOS BY ATHLETES, which is an alliance of Belarus’ top sporting stars that have come out against Lukashenko and made a video denouncing the elections and calling on Lukashenko to step down.
There have been a string of these videos by various groups, including the top footballers of all the major clubs, actors, students and others, all with the same message: we stand with people; the elections were faked; political prisoners should be released; and Lukashenko should step down.
Beyond Europe’s borders the EU summit is also due to discuss its relations with China, as relations worsen there too. Beijing is becoming more assertive as it grows and is starting to flex its geopolitical and economic muscles.
That has forced the EU to change tack on its relations with Beijing. MEPs are trying to strike an impossible balance between becoming more vocal on human rights abuses and creeping authoritarianism, while at the same time maintaining the EU’s business ties to the massive Chinese market.
“China policy internally is becoming more totalitarian all the time, and its policy towards the outside world is becoming more aggressive all of the time," says MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, who chairs the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with China. He supports a change in approach with Beijing, with a tougher attitude. "We tell China, we have had it with their win-win rhetoric,” he said.
This debate is unlikely to be resolved, as there is a fundamental problem. As bne IntelliNews explored in a recent blog “The Moscow Consensus”, the Western world still adheres to the Washington Consensus, where, among other things, business and the state are ideologically separated.
In the Moscow Consensus the extra competitiveness and profits of keeping the public and private sectors autonomous is sacrificed to the extra political clout gained by using state-owned companies to strike deals that have a foreign policy dimension. Moscow has been doing this for years through the vehicle of Gazprom amongst other companies and Beijing is playing the same game. The West is helpless to respond, as it is not prepared to forego the profits it believes it can make from trading with China and, ironically, it is largely powerless to stop its privately owned companies from doing business with China as a result of its own ideology.
The ongoing protests in Bulgaria – which have persisted daily for almost three months – will be on the agenda for the summit. Protesters have been pushing for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to resign over top-level corruption and their links to controversial politicians and businessmen. Since they started in July, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians from cities across the country have taken part in the protests.
At the biggest protest to date on September 2, police used pepper spray and tear gas against protesters. More than 100 arrests were made, and there are numerous reporters of protesters and journalists being physically abused by police.
The EU has been under increasing pressure from critics of the government to intervene to uphold the rule of law in Bulgaria. “Are you blind, EU?” has become a popular placard during the protests and several times protesters have stopped by the delegation of the EU to demand a reaction from European institutions.
Following the EU summit of October 1-2, the European Parliament will debate the rule of law in Bulgaria later this month. MEPs from the European Union’s working group on media have already urged Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Hristo Terziyski to probe the attack on local journalist Dimiter Kenarov during the anti-government protest on September 2. Kenarov said he was kicked in the head by at least two policemen while being held on the ground, without resisting in any way. MEPs also mention two other cases of journalists who were beaten or pepper sprayed during the protest on September 2.
On September 10, MEP Clare Daly called on the EC to stop funding Bulgarian "gangsters" – she was referring to Borissov’s government – and accused the European authorities of either being incompetent or intentionally backing Borissov.
Rule of law
While rule of law is not part of the official agenda, a spat brewing between Brussels and Budapest could overshadow the talks.
Hungary called for Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova to resign this week after she was quoted by German magazine Der Spiegel as calling Orban's Hungary a 'sick democracy'.
This was followed by the release of a report on rule of law, which saw the Commission slam Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland for breaches of democratic standards.