We’re all familiar with the shocking pictures that have reached us from the Belarusian border region with Poland and the Baltic States, and not only in the last few days. Hundreds of people are stranded there at the border, directed by Belarusian security forces, who have now violently blocked their path back. Children, women and men are camping out in the open in sub-zero temperatures without sufficient winter clothing. A number of people have since died.
Mr Lukashenko and his backers in Minsk are responsible for this suffering. I would like to clearly state at this point that, irrespective of other political discussions that we’re holding in the European Union, Poland isn’t the problem here – I have sometimes heard the opposite in this debate – but rather the problem is Lukashenko, Belarus and the regime that holds power in the country. Poland therefore deserves our solidarity, European solidarity in this situation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Those in power in Minsk are bringing migrants to Belarus under false pretences in order to send them towards the European Union from there. They are, without any scruples whatsoever, abusing thousands of people as hostages in a cynical power struggle. They want to put the European Union and individual member states such as Poland in particular, and also Lithuania, under pressure, and are ruthlessly playing with human lives.
Meanwhile, and this also needs to be mentioned, the repression against the Belarussian people continues. Since last year, the regime’s security forces have arrested thousands of people while the number of political prisoners has climbed to over 800. What is more, there is no dialogue with the opposition.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are in a situation in which it is perhaps understandable from an emotional standpoint to curse Mr Lukashenko’s name; but that doesn’t cut it by a long shot. We are in a situation in which drawing the necessary conclusions is overdue. And this is something we want to do – together with our European partners.
Firstly, humanitarian aid for the people in the Belarusian border region is a priority, especially in view of the approaching winter. Among the fundamental values of the European Union and its member states is the fact that we do not abandon people in need. We will have to uphold these common values also at our external borders. We have an obligation under international law to facilitate humanitarian access especially in this situation. International aid organisations and civil society associations stand ready to help people in Poland and also in Belarus, and this has to be made possible.
Secondly, we, as the European Union, will continue to take action against illegal human trafficking via Belarus. No one involved in this trafficking ring should be allowed to go unpunished. This is a message for the countries of transit, the countries of origin and the airlines with which migrants are brought to Belarus. It must be clear to them that the European Union will not be prepared to accept this any longer.
This message is also being received and understood. In the countries of origin, we have now held many talks that have, for example, led to the suspension of flights to Belarus from Iraq and Jordan. We’re also talking to airlines. It is not easy, legally speaking, to sanction airlines because from a strictly legal point of view, they are doing nothing wrong. However, we have made it clear to all airlines that, while it may be the case that no sanctions regime will be in place at EU level, the member states are indeed contemplating making those liable who are involved in trafficking rings. What is more, landing rights are granted in each individual member state itself. This is also an issue that these airlines will have to take into serious consideration.
Thirdly, the European Union will expand and tighten its sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime. We will take this decision at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on Monday. We will continue to sanction the people and companies who are involved in targeted trafficking efforts – around the world. Moreover, further options are on the table, such as the expansion of pre-existing and other sanctions regimes, in particular sectoral, i.e. economic, sanctions.
It has been pointed out in the past that too many economic sanctions further increase Belarus’ dependence on Russia. However, we’re now in a situation in which the consequences have to become clearer. This is why I believe that such important economic sectors as the potash industry in Belarus must now be subject to sanctions, a step supported by a majority in the European Union.
Fourthly, we are stepping up our public messaging in the countries of origin. Let’s not underestimate this. Anyone who doubts this should remember that the situation in the Western Balkans improved thanks to enhanced public messaging in the countries of origin. Travel agents and gangs of human traffickers are enticing people to embark on the dangerous journey to Belarus because they can make money from this. They are extracting thousands of dollars from these people’s pockets, possibly all they have left. We must therefore dismantle the lies propagated by the traffickers and the rumours in social media, and also point to the consequences that Lukashenko’s actions have for each and every person who is thinking about leaving their homes.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, we stand shoulder to shoulder with our European partners in Poland and Lithuania in a spirit of solidarity in this situation. The most recent events have reminded us once again that we need viable and humane solutions in the areas of displacement and migration, i.e. progress towards a common European asylum system that tackles the root causes of migration and protects European borders and is, above all, rooted in the principle of solidarity. We will continue to work towards this at the European level.
Thank you very much.