The Cypriot veto against European sanctions on Belarus is a reminder that the EU must scrap unanimity in foreign policy.
Behold the mighty European Union, second only to the U.S. in economic heft. But also witness what a minnow it is in world diplomacy. Is it any wonder the world’s hard-nosed autocrats and nationalists, practitioners of Realpolitik all, don’t take the EU seriously, unless the subject is trade?
The ones laughing loudest right now are the presidents of Turkey and Belarus. Neighbors of the EU, each has been causing trouble. This week, Europe was supposed to impose sanctions against one of them, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, for his blatant manipulation of the country’s election in August and subsequent crackdown on protesters. Instead, Brussels did nothing. If that seems puzzling, ask the bloc’s third-smallest member state by population: Cyprus.
The island nation vetoed the sanctions, as any member state can because the EU still requires unanimity for all foreign policy decisions. This has been one factor, amid many, that’s neutered European foreign policy over the years. China, for instance, has often been able to “buy” one or more small countries with lavish investment promises in return for their veto against EU censures over human rights.
But why would Cyprus block sanctions against Lukashenko? Is the government in Nicosia not outraged at this dictator’s brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators, most of whom are women? Of course it is. But, as so often in EU affairs, Cyprus cares a lot more about another conflict: The rising tension with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The ethnically Greek population of Cyprus has always had problems with Turkey, which invaded the island in 1974 and ultimately helped establish a rival Turkish republic in the territory’s north that’s recognized only by Ankara. Gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean have made these enmities more dangerous, because all adjoining powers are now tussling over maritime borders and drilling rights (see map).
Competing claims over the Eastern Mediterranean
Last month, with a characteristic lack of subtlety, Erdogan dispatched an exploration vessel escorted by military ships to the contested waters. This led to outcries from Greece, Cyprus and others. France even sent its own warship and two fighter jets as an unambiguous gesture.
But Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and several other member states don’t want to rush into additional sanctions against Erdogan’s government. They want to give negotiations a chance instead. That’s because the EU and Turkey have to talk about lots of conflicts simultaneously. These negotiations include the treatment of refugees, which Erdogan happily uses as geopolitical pawns. Turkey will be the main topic at the next EU summit.
Cyprus fears that Germany and the EU aren’t ready to be tough enough on Erdogan. So Nicosia grasped its only lever of power and is holding the Belarusian sanctions hostage until the EU also expands its measures against Turkey.
It’s entirely understandable that different member states will have different foreign policy interests, often based on their geography, history and even (as in Cyprus) national identity. But this also used to be true in trade policy, where the interests, say, of French farmers and German carmakers aren’t remotely aligned. Nonetheless, a consensus eventually prevailed that Europe is stronger if it negotiates as one trading bloc, even if this means not every national interest gets equal priority.
So it should be possible for a similar consensus to take hold on foreign policy. After all, just as Cyprus can “win” one round this week, Poland or Lithuania could return the favor next time by blocking sanctions against Turkey unless Cyprus comes around on Belarus. France and Italy could veto each other’s interests in the name of Libya, where they’ve been on opposing sides of the civil war. And various countries might like to block any initiative until the German government finally kills a controversial pipeline between Russia and Germany. As long as anybody can block everybody, all lose.
This insanity must stop. The solution, as the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, pleaded last week in her “state of the union,” is called qualified majority voting. The 27 members would impose sanctions or make declarations on human rights if 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the EU’s population are in favor.
Majority voting wouldn’t please every member state all the time. But it’s the only way to give the EU any chance of ever speaking with one voice in foreign affairs. And in a geopolitically strained world, Europe needs such a voice to be heard at all, as it’s finally realizing in its dealings with China. Ditching the unanimity requirement in European foreign policy is an idea whose time has come.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.