This week another senior EU official, the Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources Gunther Oettinger has visited Minsk and met Alexander Lukashenko, prime minister Sergei Rumas and deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko.
Minsk and Brussels both claim they are eager to deepen ties, but the pace of approachment is slow. Given both sides find the necessary political will to move forward, what realistically can be achieved in Belarus-EU relations?
The alignment is potentially possible in three areas – political relations, trade and movement of people.
Believe it or not, Minsk and Brussels do not have any formal basis for their relations apart from the outdated 1989 treaty between Soviet Belorussia and European Communities.
This is not normal.
All the other EU neighbors and post-Soviet countries have these treaties concluded with Brussels long ago. These documents are usually called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) and they cover the broadest possible range of issues – from finance and trade to border cooperation and ecology.
Minsk and Brussels signed the PCA in 1995, but its ratification in the EU has stalled after Belarus slid to autocracy. Since 2016 Minsk has been actively pushing the idea to reopen the talks about a new PCA, but Brussels seems reluctant to do so.
Before negotiating this document, the EU wants to sign another one, Partnership Priorities, but Vilnius has hampered the process because of concerns about Belarusian nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. The Priorities can open some more doors to EU technical assistance for projects in Belarus. We speak tens, at most, hundreds million euro here.
If this document is indeed singed in 2019, EU hints it might agree to discuss the PCA. It will likely resemble the agreements signed recently with Kazakhstan and Armenia, where the diplomats added the word “enhanced” to the treaty name to emphasize it is a bit deeper than the usual PCA.
More advanced formal relations – such as association – are foreclosed for Belarus as long as it remains an ally of Russia.
Remember how nervous Kremlin became when Ukraine chose to sign an association agreement with the EU? The reaction will not be softer in the case of Belarus, where Russia has even more leverage.
Free trade? Not so fast
The free trade agreement, which is a usual instrument of lifting trade barriers between EU and third countries, is clearly not on the table with Belarus.
It contradicts the obligations Minsk has under the Eurasian Economic Union treaty, which includes a free trade area of its own. One cannot be simultaneously in two non-overlapping free trade agreements.
At maximum, Belarus and the EU can lift certain trade barriers such as quotas or entrance duties, as it happened with textile goods, for example.
So far, however, the negotiations on opening up trade have been extremely slow and mostly effectless.
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Despite being world leaders in the number of Schengen visas per capita, Belarusians have to pay the full 60 euro fee for a visa. For almost five years the sides have been unable to sign visa facilitation agreement that lowers the fee to 35 Euro.
The treaty is expected to be signed later this year, likely by the end of summer. It will then need to be ratified and enter into force. Realistically, Schengen visas for Belarusians will get cheaper only in 2020.
In principle, nothing legally precludes the next step – visa-free regime.
Minsk has made this step unilaterally, by introducing visa-free entry for the EU (and more than 50 other countries’) citizens if they enter via the National airport Minsk and stay in Belarus for no longer than 30 days.
However, even with the political will in place, this is a far more complicated diplomatic task.
It took Ukraine seven years from signing the roadmap to waive visas in 2010 to actually doing it in 2017. To achieve it Kiev had to undertake more than 140 reforms. Some of them dealt with rule of law, corruption and judicial system. All these areas are very problematic in Belarus as well.
If Minsk and Brussels were ever to agree to kick off these talks, it is simply impossible to predict how much time they can take.
Text by Artyom Shraibman. Preview image: No Idea Animation.