By Andrew Rettman
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU member states have kicked into the long grass plans to impose mini-trade sanctions on Belarus in a move that says more about the mysterious inner workings of the EU institutions than about EU-Belarus relations - leaving the European Commission with a red face.
EU diplomats had planned to vote on Thursday (12 October) to impose tariffs on ?390 million a year of Belarus imports after Minsk over the past 18 months failed to put in place 12 demands on trade union rights made by the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO).
But EU diplomats cancelled the vote, giving an official explanation that Belarus deputy prime minister Andrei Kobyakov plans to meet with ILO chiefs in Switzerland on 19 October and could make fresh concessions on trade unions, potentially leading to the labour organisation withdrawing its complaint.
The move means that EU member states will not get another crack at imposing the sanctions until March 2007 at the earliest, with the whole process - which involves the ILO making a fresh recommendation to the European Commission which in turn has to make a new recommendation to EU member states - taking at least six months.
The cancellation is embarrassing for the European Commission, which has pushed strongly for sanctions, saying in the past few weeks that "the political fallout would be just huge" if the move failed and that "the EU has to recognise that this regime [Belarus] is carrying out flagrant abuses."
"We remain fully committed to our proposal, but we are currently evaluating whether new elements could be added to supplement it," a commission spokesman added on Thursday.
ILO meeting 'not real reason'
But the u-turn by member states is less to do with Mr Kobyakov's ILO visit and more to do with Chinese shoes, Polish-Lithuanian worries over cross-border trade and the risk of political precedent, with EU political will for the sanctions ebbing away, diplomats say.
"Nobody really believes the ILO will withdraw the complaint no matter what Belarus puts on paper," an EU official told EUobserver. "But we got into such a mess on trade with antidumping tarrifs on Chinese shoes that nobody wants to see fresh trade retaliations from Poland and Lithuania just now."
Back in September, Italy blocked an earlier 26 September vote on the Belarus sanctions because it wanted to retaliate against pro-Belarus sanction states such as Germany, the UK and Sweden, which had gone against an Italian-led campaign to impose penalties on imports of cheap Chinese shoes, the contact explained.
The shoe war is over. But in the sensitive, post-shoe war trade climate, nobody wanted to see Poland and Lithuania use the Italian tactic and start voting against other EU trade measures to get back at member states who ignored their protests that Belarus sanctions would hurt cross-border trade.
Meanwhile, the mini-sanctions move - which would involve expelling Belarus from the EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) on trade - could have raised prickly questions on why countries such as Cuba and Uzbekistan - not known for their trade union credentials - are allowed to stay in the GSP herd.
"I really don't know how this [Thursday] decision came about. It wasn't any single person or cause. It was a sort of creeping institutional wisdom," the official added.
On top of all this, the Thursday vote would have encountered a small legal problem, as EU rules stipulate that an official European Commission recommendation - issued on 4 August in this case - must see a member state decision no later than one month down the line to be valid.
The legal quibble - which means the old 26 September vote could have been overturned even if it had gone the commission's way - was an added factor in member states' negative Thursday move.
"The commission overslept on this one. Or maybe somebody did it on purpose, tabling the 4 August recommendation in a month when nothing happens in Brussels," a diplomat close to the talks stated. "Either way, it shows what a big mess the whole thing has become.