BRUSSELS — This one looked easy.
Given the depredations of the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko — the fraudulent election, the crackdown on opposition leaders, the beatings and arrests of peaceful protesters — the European Union seemed poised to respond quickly with economic sanctions, something more tangible than just words.
Top E.U. officials, including Josep Borrell Fontelles, the foreign policy chief, have called the re-election of Mr. Lukashenko illegitimate, demanded a new vote and said that they no longer recognize him as president, despite his “inauguration” in a secret ceremony on Wednesday.
But new sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and some 40 of his cohorts are still in abeyance, nearly two months after the Aug. 9 election. They require unanimous support from the 27 E.U. nations, but are being held hostage by one of the smallest members, Cyprus.
The failure to act is more than an embarrassment — it undercuts European desires to be a forceful actor charting its own course in global affairs, on a par with the superpowers. It undermines European goals of “strategic autonomy,’’ independent of the United States, and it underscores Russian and Chinese contentions — let alone those of the Trump Administration — that the European Union is weak, divided and incapable of effective and rapid strategic action.
Though many have called for an abandonment of the unanimity rule in foreign policy decisions, it is highly unlikely to happen, because that, too, would require a unanimous vote. And smaller countries with special concerns, like Cyprus or Greece, have no interest in diluting their power.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader who was forced to flee to Lithuania, went to Brussels Monday morning, before the foreign ministers’ meeting, to plead for sanctions and “bravery.” She went away with neither.
Cypriot officials like the foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides, insist, however, that they are in full support of sanctions against Belarus. But they also insist that they be approved in parallel with new sanctions against Turkey, which Cyprus wants to punish over energy explorations in its waters, which Turkey disputes.
“Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core, basic values and principles cannot be à la carte,’’ Mr. Christodoulides said. “It needs to be consistent.”
Greece shares the concerns of Cyprus and has recently put its military on alert in the face of what it also considers Turkish aggression in Greek waters. But Greece is not openly blocking sanctions on Belarus, letting Cyprus take the heat.
On Monday, Mr. Borrell was visibly angry. “Although there is a clear will to adopt those sanctions, it has not been possible today because the required unanimity was not reached,” he said at a news conference.
He added bitterly: “If we are not able to do that, then I understand perfectly our credibility is at stake.”
And so it is, but so is his own.
Mr. Borrell has been outspoken on important disputes involving Libya, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela and the use of secondary economic sanctions against European companies by the United States. But gathering unanimity among the foreign ministers to back up his words has been difficult. So much so that Stefan Lehne, a former senior Austrian and European diplomat now with Carnegie Europe, has wondered whether Mr. Borrell is speaking for anyone other than himself.
In the years since the E.U. expanded into eastern Europe and Cyprus in 2004, an era of new global economic pressures, “there has been a loss of internal cohesion,’’ Mr. Lehne said. “In my time if a country was isolated it felt very, very uncomfortable’’ and looked eagerly for a deal, he added. “Now some countries are very happy to block consensus and see this as a triumph of their national foreign policy.’’
While previous foreign policy chiefs looked for compromise, usually limiting themselves to less sensitive issues, Mr. Borrell “interprets his mandate as making far bolder statements than anything the 27 can agree upon,’’ Mr. Lehne said. That has risks, he said: “Ultimately it will lead to the question, for whom is he actually speaking?”
While the bigger countries like France, Germany and Italy can set their own foreign policies, and sometimes can produce E.U. consensus, the question remains whether a group of countries so diverse can produce a “European” foreign policy on anything serious that might compare to the policies of big powers like Russia, China and the United States.
Turkey and Belarus are not on the other side of the world, but are part of the European neighborhood, making conflicts with them both thornier and more urgent. But Europe is split over what to do about Turkey, which has paralyzed it on Belarus.
France and Greece back Cyprus, but not to the extent of blocking the Belarus decision. Yet France’s visible support for Greece and Cyprus against Turkey, including the sending of fighter planes and high-level diplomatic visits, all in the name of “European Union solidarity,” is nonetheless considered a factor in Cypriot intransigence.
Germany, which currently holds the bloc presidency, is pushing for the sanctions on Belarus, but at the same time is also trying to mediate the dispute between Turkey and E.U. members Cyprus and Greece. To that end, the Germans see further sanctions against Turkish officials as counterproductive and want to separate the issues.
In fact, on Tuesday, the day after the foreign ministers failed to impose new sanctions against anyone, Turkey agreed to new talks on the dispute with Cyprus and Greece, after pulling back its energy survey ship, which had been defended by warships and aircraft. And it is now engaged in “military deconfliction” talks with Greece under NATO auspices.
However cynical it might be, the Turkish move is likely to postpone further the push for sanctions against it.
To add some absurdity to the problem, the chance that the impasse would be broken at a summit meeting this week of European leaders was missed when Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, postponed the gathering because he had been in the presence of a security guard who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The leaders are now expected to meet on Oct. 1, but the final decision on sanctions may be left to the foreign ministers when they meet again on Oct. 12.
Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and a European legislator, lamented on Twitter: “Unanimity is killing the EU’s credibility … and much more!”
Citing the bloc’s paralysis on Belarus, on aggressive moves by Russia and on the plight of tens of thousands of migrants living in squalid camps in Greece, he asked, “How many times must we fail before we see our own rules are holding us back?”
The Baltic and Central European member states have been most explicit in pressing for action against Mr. Lukashenko. Late last month, impatient with Brussels, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia jointly imposed travel bans on Mr. Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials.
Their impatience was underscored this week by the Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, who wrote on Twitter: “It is regrettable that today we could not decide on sanctions on violations of human rights there due to ‘a hostage taking’ by a member state. Sends a wrong signal to Belarusians, our societies and the whole world.”