EU leaders agree swift retaliation after Belarus intercepts Ryanair flight

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EU leaders agreed to impose new sanctions on Belarus and ban its national airline from the bloc’s airspace and airports after Minsk intercepted a Ryanair flight to arrest an opposition activist.

We will be looking at how substantive the EU’s uncharacteristically swift response to Minsk’s provocation is. The devil will be in the detail and the detail is not set yet. Leaders will reconvene this morning to talk Covid-19 and the contentious topic of how to reach the bloc’s climate goals.

We will also dive into the troubled waters the German Green party has found itself in and explore what this may mean for Annalena Baerbock, its first-ever chancellor candidate.

And as Tuesday marks the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, we take a look at new figures on police discrimination in the EU.

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Striking back at Minsk

A favourite pastime in the Belgian capital is lamenting the EU’s perennial inability to move rapidly and decisively on foreign policy matters, write Sam Fleming and Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

But once in a while, the bloc manages to prove its critics wrong. Monday was an example of that (or of low expectations) as EU leaders used a summit that had been scheduled before the Belarus crisis to come up with a rapid response to the diversion of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius by Minsk.

The package agreed by leaders has several elements:

  • It calls for ministers to move quickly to adopt new “targeted economic sanctions” as well as accelerate an existing package of measures that was already under discussion

  • It urges EU airlines not to use Belarus’s airspace

  • The EU will ban Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace or landing at its airports

  • It calls for the release of Roman Protasevich, the leading opposition activist, and Sofia Sapega, his partner, who were on the Ryanair flight, as well as an international investigation of the incident.

The measures will enable the EU to expand the scale and scope of its sanctions on Belarus, allowing the bloc to target oligarchs and companies seen as offering crucial funding to the regime. The hope is that this will intensify the pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko by undercutting his domestic power.

But the full impact of the mooted sanctions will only become apparent after officials in Brussels draw up the details of the proposed measures in the coming days. This will involve striking a delicate balance between hitting essential business interests with links to the regime without creating excessive damage to the broader economy. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said the measures would target economic entities and businesses that prop up the regime.

The demands for tougher measures were made by a host of countries, led by Lithuania with notable allies in the Nordics, the Netherlands and Baltic states. “Immediate is now the keyword for success,” said Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda.

As leaders were holed up in Brussels’ Europa building until 1am — and forced to relinquish their mobile phones — footage emerged on Belarusian-backed online channels of a visibly bruised Protasevich. In this clip, he is heard confessing to organising the mass protests that followed last year’s disputed presidential election.

The brazen nature of Lukashenko’s action against the dissident prompted widespread condemnation, including from the US and UK. EU leaders are well-aware of the risk of allowing his unprecedented move to go unanswered: encouraging authoritarian regimes to believe they can weaponise control of their airspace with impunity.

Annalena in trouble

Joschka Fischer, the German Green party’s first-ever foreign minister, once called the chancellery the “death zone of politics”. Now, Annalena Baerbock, the party’s first-ever chancellor-candidate, may be getting a sense of what he meant, writes Erika Solomon in Berlin.

The Greens know they often suffer from rising polling numbers that crash on election day. Yet hopes grew of having an impact after they nominated Baerbock last month. Not only did the party overtake Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in nearly every poll, Baerbock outperformed the CDU’s Armin Laschet and the Social Democrat’s Olaf Scholz, her two rivals to succeed the chancellor, in some of them.

But Baerbock’s stumbles since coming under greater scrutiny show how tricky it gets at the top.

Annalena Baerbock’s first stumbles have dented her lead in the polls © Getty Images

It was revealed last week that Baerbock failed to report €25,000 worth of bonus payments from her party. She apologised for the “stupid oversight” but rivals took the opportunity to skewer her — particularly over bonuses given to reward improved election performances, which other parties said they do not do.

“The fact that the capitalist-critic Greens are paying their leaders bonuses for successes is grotesque,” Markus Blume, the secretary-general of the Christian Social Union, told Bild. He accused them of “hypocrisy and double standards”.

German media editorials also called it a bad look for the party that touts its moral politics and transparency.

Then there was Baerbock’s call to outlaw short-distance flights, which also raised howls of derision.

At the same time, public frustration over management of the pandemic, which likely helped knock the CDU from its top polling position, is now fading as vaccination rates climb and infection rates fall.

Baerbock’s ratings have slipped. An Insa poll published by Bild showed 20 per cent of voters would back if elections were held, a fall of 4 percentage points but still ahead of Laschet and Scholz. But another poll by the Wahlen research group, published by the broadcaster ZDF, put Baerbock last.

It is still four months before voters go to the polls. But at this rate, Baerbock risks not just losing her lead but also her lustre. 

Chart du jour: The ECB’s bond headache

Line chart of 10-year bond yields showing Eurozone borrowing costs are on the rise

Borrowing costs in the eurozone are rising, with Italian and German bond yields edging up. The increase will complicate the European Central Bank’s decision on whether to slow the purchase of bonds with a European recovery on the horizon. (Find out more)

Racial profiling

A year after the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, sparked protests against police violence and systemic racism around the world, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna is releasing a report on how minorities in Europe are treated by the law enforcement. 

Its conclusion: racial profiling is widespread across the bloc, with police officers most often stopping or searching young men, members of ethnic minorities, Muslims or people who do not identify as heterosexual.

Police officers searched or asked 34 per cent of people from ethnic minorities for their identity papers, compared with 14 per cent of the general population, the report found.

In Austria, the stop and search rate for people from sub-Saharan African countries was as high as 49 per cent.

Immigrants and descendants of immigrants from South Asia felt most racially profiled in Greece (89 per cent), and Roma people said the same of the Netherlands (86 per cent) and Portugal (84 per cent).

When it comes to how people rate their experience, about 80 per cent of the general population said police treated them respectfully during the stop.

But just 46 per cent of respondents among minority groups said this was the case during their encounters with the police. In the Netherlands, 3 per cent of the Roma surveyed said they were treated respectfully compared with 76 per cent of the general population.

In Portugal, the figure for Roma was 10 per cent and in Italy, 29 per cent of descendants of immigrants or immigrants from north African countries, compared with about 90 per cent of the general population.

The agency reminds EU member states that they have legal obligations to fight discrimination and steer clear from ethnic profiling in police actions. But governments have shown little interest in heeding this call.

Two things to watch on Tuesday

  1. EU leaders meet for a second day in Brussels to discuss climate targets and Covid-19 policies

  2. First anniversary of George Floyd’s death

Notable, Quotable

  • With France taking over the EU presidency in 2022 and looming elections, President Emmanuel Macron has floated the idea of topping up the EU’s €800bn Recovery Fund. But in Brussels, officials say this proposal is coming too soon, as the money has not even started flowing yet. (Find out more)

  • Eutelsat has jeopardised its involvement in a new EU space-based internet service by investing alongside the UK government in OneWeb, the satellite broadband company, the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton has warned.

  • Concerns are growing about political interference in Polish state-owned companies, after Zbigniew Jagiello abruptly resigned as chief executive of PKO Bank Polski allegedly due to pressure from the country’s ruling Law and Justice party.

  • As the Vatican faces financial problems, Pope Francis asks if the Vatican’s costly news outlets, including L’Osservatore Romano, are worth the money, AP reports.

FT Event: Future of Asset Management Europe

On May 27-28, Europe’s asset and wealth managers will explore how funds are adapting to a new digital way of working while building business models that allow them to harness opportunities for economic recovery. Register here.

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Tuesday’s Europe Express team: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter: @MehreenKhn, @Sam1Fleming, ErikaSolomon, @valentinapop.

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