The events which followed the elections in Belarus on 19 December have come as a shock, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton told Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "The events we witnessed were an affront to our vision of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy," she said in a speech on 19 January, adding "The time has come to act."
Ashton said the EU should use its channels "to pass a firm and prompt reaction," giving "a clear signal of our views to the authorities in Belarus without isolating citizens and civil society." She called for a balanced reaction, namely reviewing sanctions against the Belarusian authorities while intensifying dialogue with, and support for, civil society and citizens.
In the short-term, the EU High Representative said a travel ban for President Lukashenka could be reintroduced and extended to other individuals if the detainees were not released.
The short-term measures could also include "visa facilitation, in parallel with readmission specifically aimed at the interests of citizens and offering no gift to the authorities," Ashton said, adding "If such agreements cannot be concluded with the authorities, I want to encourage Member States' consulates in Minsk to facilitate the delivery of visas as an ad-hoc measure in the interest of the Belarusian citizens."
These short-term measures will have to be considered at the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January, EU High Representative said.
Turning to the long-term aspects of EU-Belarus relations, Ashton said the EU should work with other international partners. In her words, "this is one reason why Belarus should continue to take part in the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, and why we should engage strongly with Eastern Partnership countries to build consensus on this issue."
As far as bilateral financial assistance from the ENPI is concerned, the EU needs to have a stronger focus on the needs of the population and on civil society, Ashton said.
Finally, she said there was a need to review the Joint Interim Plan for EU-Belarus relations in the medium-term, adding "I believe we have no option but to pause this process. This does not mean abandoning the Joint Interim Plan, but it implies that it would need further consultation, including with civil society, and review if necessary."