Soon, ignoring tyranny in Belarus won’t be an option

The diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden means the UK won't be able to remain detached for long.

Over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for having failed to register a diplomatic row within Europe that has left two embassies emptied and led to an emergency meeting at the EU.

It is worth examining the chain of events that has led to this swift rise in tensions between Sweden and Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko became President of Belarus in 1994; he maintained power for 18 years by allegedly rigging elections and using his Soviet-legacy KGB to imprison and often torture members of the opposition, journalists and human rights activists; on 4 July this year a Swedish PR firm flew into Belarusian airspace and dropped 800 teddy bears with parachutes carrying pro-democracy slogans. President Lukashenko’s reaction was to arrest two Belarusians – one a student who had posted photos of the bears online, another an estate agent who had considered renting an apartment to the Swedes involved but in the end, well, didn’t.

This provoked outrage from human rights and freedom of speech campaigners across Europe who have since been holding a range of protests and solidarity actions to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation. Turning it into a national security issue, Lukashenko sacked two of his top generals - those in charge of air defence and border control. Since this only drew more attention to the event, he went on to effectively expel all Swedish embassy staff from Minsk and withdraw his own embassy from Stockholm, destroying diplomatic relations between the two countries and creating an international news story out of what was, essentially, a publicity stunt.

Lukashenko then gave nearly two weeks for the story to fade away before dismissing his Foreign Minister on Monday. This was presumably intended as a face-saving move before he inevitably invites the Swedish embassy back to Minsk but has essentially brought the whole saga back into the spotlight by his sheer obstinance.

(It should be noted that Lukashenko claims that the closing of the embassies is unrelated to the teddy bear drop, but he also claimed the bear drop had not taken place, even weeks after Anton Suryapin and Syarhei Basharymau were arrested.)

Meanwhile Russian state media has made a lot of noise blaming Sweden for its provocations while the EU has condemned Lukashenko’s actions and agreed to consider extending existing sanctions in October.

The attitude of the UK Government towards President Lukashenko’s regime tends to be tacit condemnation. In the past the Foreign Office has taken a side against the Belarusian government only when pressed; the most noteworthy reaction they have so far given to the closing of the Swedish embassy has been a tweet from William Hague to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt:

Essentially, the UK Government’s position has always been "leave it to the EU". Soon however that attitude will not be enough. 

Apart from Lukashenko’s blunders, the long drawn out saga created over this has partly been due to chance timing, and there is no indication that this will change over the next few weeks.

The dust will still be settling from the diplomatic row, the PR company Studio Total will be continuing to maximise its hard-earned publicity and human rights groups will be trying to use the rise in tensions to gain support for the release of political prisoners when election time comes to Belarus in September.

Belarus’s 2010 elections saw mass protests, widespread accusations of tampering and the arrests of hundreds of activists – there is little reason to expect these will go any differently. Even with a boycott planned by many opposition groups, there will almost inevitably be violence and a brutal crackdown as seen two years ago. After the recent row with Sweden, Belarus is more isolated than ever. Next month Lukashenko will most likely consolidate his place as a pariah of European politics and there is little knowing what the diplomatic outcome could be.

While remaining comparatively aloof from the situation in Belarus in general, Britain has earned Lukashenko’s displeasure recently by upholding the EU travel ban and barring the notoriously competitive dictator from watching his team’s success at the London Olympics. The President has proven himself to be incredibly temperamental, skewed in political judgement and therefore unpredictable. Events are likely to come to a head next month and once again put Belarus at the forefront of European politics, and it seems unlikely that the British government can remain detached for much longer. This may be wishful thinking on the part of an activist, but it seems almost inevitable that we could soon see our government take some small but genuine stand in support of democracy and human rights, whether they want to or not.

Jack Barton works in a voluntary capacity for the Free Belarus Now campaign

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko waves as he walks with his young son Nikolay, 'Kolya' Lukashenko during recent independence day celebrations. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.