Ryanair hijacking is a direct challenge to values of the European Union

Lukashenko’s action and ransomware attack on HSE both sound clear warnings

A Ryanair flight lands at Dublin Airport. The international response to the Belarus incident will be of immense importance, for the kidnapped journalist, for press freedom more generally and for the rule of international law. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

A Ryanair flight lands at Dublin Airport. The international response to the Belarus incident will be of immense importance, for the kidnapped journalist, for press freedom more generally and for the rule of international law. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

The forced diversion of a Ryanair jet carrying holidaymakers from one EU country to another – Greece to Lithuania – has rightly been described as state-sponsored hijacking. In this the week of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, the incident was a shocking reminder of Dylan’s warning that “democracy don’t rule the world”.

What is at immediate issue is the liberty and wellbeing of a young journalist and his girlfriend. Beyond the specific individuals involved, the arrest and silencing of a journalist represent a deliberate assault on press freedom which is more essential than ever today in holding political leaders to account – nowhere more so than in countries with undemocratic and repressive regimes such as that of president Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome

Moreover, the implications of the hijacking go even wider in two important respects. First, the actions of the Belarus government represent a serious threat to a rules-based international order, according to which it should be assumed – among other things – that civilian aircraft are free to go about their business without fear of air piracy.

This is not the first case of scandalous interference with civilian aircraft. Nor has Lukashenko invented the idea of what may be called transnational repression. One only has to think, for example, of the grotesque murder of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul. But the recent Ryanair incident was cynically premeditated and uniquely barefaced.

Enticing precedent

The second, wider implication of the episode is that it sets an enticing precedent for other countries, including larger countries, for whom the rule of law represents, if not a barrier to their actions, at least some impediment.

The international response to the incident will thus be of immense importance, for the kidnapped journalist, for press freedom more generally and for the rule of international law. The challenge of calibrating and shaping that response falls in the first instance to the European Union, given that the hijacked plane was travelling between two of its member states and owned by an Irish company.

The EU has already imposed several rounds of sanctions against the Belarus government. However, it must now self-evidently take additional urgent and strong measures. Several European governments expressed immediate and justifiable outrage about Lukashenko’s behaviour, but the key is further collective action. The EU is not a military power and is sometimes hamstrung by the need for unanimity on all foreign policy matters.

Security is not just about military hardware but also about things like the safety of civilian aircraft and cybercrime

There are those, especially in the pro-Brexit press, who strain at the bit to proclaim the EU’s foreign policy to be toothless. This is, of course, nonsense. The EU exercises significant international influence and has immense economic and trade levers, especially in Lukashenko’s neighbourhood. But this latest outrage is a direct challenge to the purpose, values and indeed – as regards air travel - the practical operation of the European Union. Its response must be commensurate with that challenge and should hit the regime where it hurts.

Commitment

The EU should, at the same time, act in concert with those who broadly share its commitment to a rules-based international system and to freedom of the press. Nato, of which Greece and Lithuania are both members, has made its position clear. US president Joe Biden, in contrast to how his predecessor Donald Trump is likely to have reacted, has described the hijacking as “dangerous and abhorrent”. The UK government, now hopefully fully committed – after a blip over the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol – to implementing international law, has also strongly criticised the Belarus aggression and called for further sanctions. The more the EU and UK can work together in support of their shared values the better.

The extent to which the Russian government may have approved of the hijacking is, as yet, unclear. The fact that the Russian foreign ministry declared itself “shocked” by European reaction suggests a mindset of which Lukashenko, who depends on Putin’s support, will have been aware.

Bob Dylan, in A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, sang about “the sound of thunder that roared out a warning”. The hijacking of a Ryanair airplane as well as the ransomware attack on the HSE – by Russia-linked hackers – both sound clear warnings to this country. They are timely reminders that security is not just about military hardware but also about things like the safety of civilian aircraft and cybercrime. They are a reminder that security is not a dirty word, that we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand, and that we can only assure Ireland’s own security by working with others, notably with our partners in the European Union.

There seems to be a growing awareness of this in Ireland. A recent Red C poll, conducted on behalf of the European Movement, indicated that 54 per cent of Irish people believe that Ireland should be part of increased EU security and defence co-operation.

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