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Morality and Law
The Belarusian Protests and the Limits of the EU’s Normative Power

The countries of the European Union became among the first in the modern world to pursue a foreign policy based not only (and sometimes not so much) on national and union interests, but on values. At the same time, this reliance of the EU on values ​​was manifested not only in political and doctrinal documents, but was also included in the fundamental legal acts of the EU. In particular, in the Lisbon Treaty, the legal basis of the EU which entered into force in 2009, it was explicitly stated that the EU is pursuing a “value based policy”. Thus, this approach has become not just a political aspiration, but a legal obligation of the European Union and its institutions.

In the theory of international relations, this position was later developed into the concept of “normative power”. Its essence, in part, is a very characteristic echo of the postulates of the classical theory of realism in international relations. The latter is based on two main principles: the state has its own national interests and utilises force/power to protect and promote these interests in the world. The concept of “normative power” in relation to the EU is that the political power of the European Union is used to protect values ​​- “norms” in a broad, moral and ethical understanding rather than a judicial one. It follows from this that these value norms determine the directions and methods of applying the force of the European Union.

This legal framework and its developing theoretical attitude determined the initially proactive nature of the European Union's foreign policy. Indeed, in order to protect values, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states was often a barrier that such an approach made it possible to bypass. This led to friction between the EU and other countries, which became the object of its value-oriented policies. We saw this, for example, in relations between Russia and the EU even before the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, in situations where the EU policy reflected values, and the policy of, say, Russia reflected its interests (geopolitical, economic and others), the very field for the negotiation space often practically disappeared. The opposition “values ​​vs. interests”, “values ​​vs. geopolitics” was extremely difficult to combine together in one dialogue which made it constructive. As a result, the parties simply often a priori did not hear and did not understand each other's arguments. Thus, the opportunity for effective diplomatic compromise was reduced. After all, let's not forget from the foundations of conflict management that values ​​are uncompromising.

This normative power of the EU manifested itself especially clearly during the Ukrainian crisis and related events. It was the same later in Venezuela. The same approach, based on all the conceptual documents of the EU, could be expected in relation to the Belarusian protests that erupted in the country after the presidential elections on August 9, 2020. But the real situation turned out to be different.

The European Union did not recognise the outcome of these elections and condemned the violence. But its next steps became surprisingly cautious, which was strikingly different from the EU's approach to the Ukrainian events six years ago. That was contrary to the key postulates of the concept of normative power. The EU refused to impose sectoral sanctions against Belarus (restrictions or prohibitions on exports and imports, bank sanctions, etc.). And it is clear that it is being cautious, and that only such measures are capable of influencing a change in the policy of the current authorities of Belarus. According to public information, the EU refused to impose personal sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko due to a lack of consensus between the member states. The EU even abandoned a purely symbolic step (but very important in the context of normative force): the recognition of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the elected President of Belarus (following the model of the recognition of Guaido in Venezuela).

Finally, contrary to all the postulates of normative force, the EU leaders have stated several times that the EU does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus. In the case of Ukraine, nothing of the kind happened: based on a value-oriented policy and using normative power, the European Union helped Ukrainian society to fight for the values ​​that it itself shared. There, the question of whether or not it is necessary to interfere in internal affairs was not even raised. This direct comparison of the two countries has now received an extremely characteristic remark from the President of the European Council) Charles Michel that Belarus should not become a new Ukraine.

What happened? Why did the European Union suddenly refuse to fully exercise its regulatory power? One explanation is that the EU's strategy is to “play for the long term” in order to build up pressure on the current Belarusian authorities gradually, step by step, and through this to succeed. This approach may indeed take place. Another answer is that, as several politicians in Poland and other EU countries have already said, it would “leave the door to the West open” for Alexander Lukashenko himself. By this logic, the EU does not really believe that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the protesters have a real chance of achieving a change of power in the country, and therefore does not support them too strongly. But according to this logic, the EU may have another goal: to consolidate the strengthening of relations between Belarus and the EU, not through a change of power, but under Alexander Lukashenko. This strategy has already been implemented in recent years; frankly, in our opinion, with the interest of both parties. And according to this logic, one should not completely abandon it now.

But then it must be clearly stated that such an approach acknowledges the classical geopolitical interests of the EU and has nothing to do with the values ​​of democracy and normative power. Does this mean that the EU has abandoned its own basic doctrine for the sake of good old geopolitics? Even if we leave out the rhetorical question of whether the EU is betraying Belarusian society and its struggle for democratic values ​​with such an approach, we will see that with such an approach, a hint of hypocrisy appears in the EU rhetoric about the priority of values. It turns out that geopolitics is still more important, and then you can forget about values.

Purely politically, this approach is quite justified: any strategy that is recognised as the most effective should be implemented. But the question is that the rejection of a value-oriented policy is a direct violation of the Lisbon Treaty, which the EU is obliged (precisely obliged) to carry out. The violation of a legal obligation enshrined in law may, under the same EU regulations, lead to legal liability for those who violated it. In this regard, it cannot be ruled out that those who disagree with such an approach among the governing institutions of the EU may resort to judicially challenging the decisions of the European Council and the European External Action Service. It is clear that this is just a hypothesis, but such a trial would be a very interesting incident not only for the internal affairs of the EU, but also for the foundations of world politics in general.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.