By forcing down a Ryanair flight Lukashenko has made Napoleon’s mistake

Belarusian act before EU summit is a make-or-break moment for bloc’s foreign policy

Passengers from a Ryanair flight that was forced to divert to Minsk in order for Belarus authorities to detain Roman Protasevich, an opposition blogger critical of president Alexander Lukashenko, have spoken of their ordeal upon landing in Lithuania.

 

Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko’s timing in forcing down a Ryanair flight to seize a journalist who was on board has provided European Union foreign policy with a make-or-break moment.

A false bomb threat and the escort of a Belarusian fighter plane forced the flight from Athens to land before it could reach its destination in Lithuania. One passenger was the 26-year-old dissident reporter Roman Protasevich, who had claimed asylum in the EU after exposing Belarusian regime brutality.

He panicked as the flight began to descend to Minsk and told those around him that he would be executed, fellow passengers recall. His 23-year-old girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a student, was also detained, according to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The audacious act happened on the evening before a meeting of the 27 EU national leaders in Brussels. The timing and the shocking nature of the incident compelled the issue to the top of the leaders’ agenda.

Strategically, the timing is deeply risky for Lukashenko. He has created the momentum, and the opportunity, for the 27 to quickly agree a tough response.

Austria’s deputy ambassador to the EU Gregor Schusterschitz likened it to Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistake of returning from exile in Elba in 1815 at a moment when the great powers were gathered at the Congress of Vienna – “allowing them to co-ordinate swiftly their effective response”.

Even the EU’s staunchest supporters agree this is a moment when the bloc badly needs to prove its foreign policy works, or even exists at all.

Hungary’s role

Foreign policy decisions require a unanimous agreement by the 27 member states. Elusive at the best of times, this configuration has been banjaxed by persistent Hungarian vetoes.

Budapest’s pugnacious prime minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly wielded his veto to do favours for fellow authoritarians. He prevented a joint EU call for an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire last week and blocked a statement of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong the week before that, to name only the most recent interventions.

As the leaders converge in the EU capital all eyes are now on the Hungarian delegation to see if Orban strikes again.

If not, a number of options for EU responses are on the table. The most likely one is more sanctions. The EU has already imposed successive rounds of asset freezes and travel bans on top officials including Lukashenko for a 2020 election widely viewed as rigged to maintain his 26-year reign, and in response to the subsequent brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Aviation agreements

Another option is to suspend international aviation agreements that allow flights to enter or leave Belarusian air space, halting air traffic. This has been called for in a joint appeal by the heads of the parliamentary foreign affairs committees of Ireland, the United States, Britain, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who described the incident as an “act of piracy” that “put the passengers and crew in grave danger”.

This is not cost-free for the EU – the avoidance of conflict zones and difficult air space to the east already adds many miles to passenger flights in Europe.

But the idea has a certain neatness and has significant support as a targeted response.

The incident has quickly come to be seen as test case for the EU’s foreign policy, and a swift and stern response is seen as essential in order for the EU’s foreign policy to retain credibility.

The strength of statements that emerged overnight, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling it “outrageous and illegal” and Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne noting he had “never seen such anger” across the EU, is a reflection of that.

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