The EU’s Eastern Border Gets a Brief Respite

There is cautious optimism in Brussels that the temperature seems to be dialing down on the crises with Belarus and Russia on the EU’s eastern border, as Minsk takes a step back in its long-running border standoff with Warsaw and Moscow has not yet made any military incursion into Ukraine, despite once again massing troops on the border. But there is also a feeling in Brussels and across the continent that the events of the past few weeks are a harbinger of dark days ahead.

EU defense ministers met Tuesday to discuss both the “hybrid warfare” by Belarus at the Polish border and the build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border. They were joined by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who warned Moscow not to take any “aggressive actions” against Ukraine. The French and German foreign ministers similarly warned of “serious consequences” for Russia if it invades Ukraine again. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House last week, with both stating that they “fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” But that will be cold comfort to Kyiv, which watched the West sit idly by when Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russian forces in 2014, apart from issuing sanctions that have been unsuccessful in reversing the annexation.

In the days since von der Leyen’s meeting with Biden, the situation at the EU’s eastern border has calmed somewhat on both fronts, with no new migrant arrivals to Belarus and no new Russian troop movements. Facing the threat of sanctions, third-country airlines from Turkey, Lebanon and the UAE voluntarily agreed to stop one-way flights to Minsk for people from Syria, Iraq and Yemen. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both been in direct contact with the Belarusian government; Belarus authorities have started moving migrants from the border to a logistics warehouse near the Kuznica checkpoint and from there possibly on to Minsk. Repatriation flights to Iraq are scheduled to start today, and Belavia—Belarus’ national airline—is voluntarily participating in the flights. That has caused some EU member states to consider holding off on applying sanctions against the airline for now, much to the great frustration of the bloc’s eastern member states.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers adopted the legal basis for a new round of sanctions against Belarus for human trafficking, but have not yet decided on who exactly in Minsk will be targeted by them. For the first time, the ministers also reportedly agreed to add Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group to the EU sanctions list, accusing the company of carrying out destabilizing actions in the region as well as in Africa. 

EU member states from the bloc’s east continue to call for an emergency EU leaders’ summit to discuss the standoff with Minsk and wider tensions with Russia in the region, and their implications for the union. But the momentum for such a summit, which would ostensibly be held before the next scheduled European Council summit in Brussels in mid-December, is fading. 

Still, even as the situation on the border with Belarus deescalates, thousands of migrants remain trapped there, caught between barbed wire and Polish border guards on one side and the Belarusian army on the other. Belarusian President Viktor Lukashenko is now saying that Minsk will fly the migrants back to their countries of origin, but the question is whether they will be willing to return. Refugee agencies say about half of the migrants trapped at the border are women and children.

As for Russia’s troop movements on the Ukrainian border, officials in Washington and Brussels have been left scratching their heads about what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions really are. The buildup prompted much speculation, including the possibility that Putin had instructed Lukashenko to organize the migrant surge in order to sew chaos and confusion ahead of a planned Russian invasion of Ukraine, or even that the Russian troops were planning an invasion and annexation of Belarus. Others think Putin may just be playing mind games with the West, by demonstrating that Moscow can still cause pain at the EU’s eastern border—and panic in Brussels. Regardless of what Putin’s real intentions may be, the developments on the EU’s eastern flank continue to raise alarm in Brussels and elsewhere that they could be a harbinger for a more ominous turn.

In Other News

The Brexit back and forth between the U.K. and EU continues. With each passing day, the U.K. government seems to adopt a different tone on whether or not it will trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol—the Brexit agreement’s so-called nuclear option for getting out of the protocol in an emergency—and risk collapse of the post-Brexit free trade deal it struck with the EU. Some days are full of bellicose threats, while others are dedicated to soft diplomacy. Tuesday appeared to be more of the latter, as U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost told Irish media that the British government accepts that the Brexit divorce deal it signed obliges London to conduct “reasonable” customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. That’s something Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has yet to publicly admit, and it’s a position that the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland actively oppose. But Frost said such checks should only be conducted on goods heading onward to the Republic of Ireland, not those destined for Northern Ireland. The question now is how to determine which goods are headed where. Meanwhile, the European Commission is keeping its retaliation package on ice—but ready to be launched in the event the U.K. triggers Article 16.

New lockdowns are imposed in Western Europe. Last week, the Netherlands announced the first new lockdown in Western Europe since the continent launched its massive vaccination drive earlier this year, ordering nightclubs, bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. for at least the next three weeks. Austria has also put a lockdown in force, but only for the unvaccinated, who will have to stay at home. Slovakia has followed with the Austrian model. The new restrictions come amid surging case rates in Western Europe. Case rates in Eastern Europe, where vaccination uptake is drastically lower than in the continent’s west, have already been surging for two months, and several countries including Romania and Latvia have already been in lockdown for weeks. Bulgaria currently has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned yesterday that Germany’s “number of daily new infections is higher than ever before.” Federal and state officials there are meeting today to discuss the possibility of introducing new restrictions.

That the Netherlands became the first country in Western Europe to force vaccinated people into a partial lockdown has come as a surprise to many observers, given the country’s libertarian tendencies. Those have been on display throughout the pandemic, as the government has consistently imposed less severe restrictions compared to its neighbors. There was speculation that Belgium, which has caseloads far worse than the Netherlands, would follow suit. But yesterday Belgian authorities announced they will not be shutting down nightlife—yet. Instead, they will extend the country’s mask mandate to bars and restaurants, which had been exempt from requiring masks since Oct. 15 in light of the vaccination certification required to enter them. People in nightclubs in Belgium will now have to wear facemasks until January at the earliest. Nightclubs that don’t want to force patrons to wear a mask do have one option: They can require a negative test at the door, in addition to proof of full vaccination.

Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, he has in the past covered the halls of Congress in Washington, the courtrooms of Chicago, the boardrooms of London, the cafes of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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