Europe’s week: EU manages Afghanistan withdrawal and prepares Belarus sanctions

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The week was mired by discontent among European Union countries. Train drivers in Germany went on another strike; Greek police clashed with participants of anti-vaccine rules protests; and in Poland, the public resistance against the country’s controversial justice reform intensified.

And then, of course, there was Afghanistan.

After weeks of pictures of chaos from the Kabul airport, the last US troops left the country – a graveyard of empires, as historians have called Afghanistan.

In a defiant speech to the nation, US president Joe Biden justified his uncompromising action, saying he had the choice between total withdrawal or escalation.

“We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refuse to send another generation of America`s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago,” Biden said on Wednesday.

An EU army?

The US withdrawal had consequences for European countries as well. After all, none of the allies wanted to stay in Afghanistan alone.

But the crisis sparked an immediate debate over the EU’s true military capabilities, as it has had to rely on the US to help airlift citizens out of the country.

Even the bloc’s top leaders admitted there is now a lot of work to be done.

“I think it’s clear that the need for more European defence has never been as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday.

“Battlegroups we already have. We already have it, but we have never used it. Never activated it, so we have to look for something more ready to be activated, more operational,” he added.

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US travel restrictions return

Brussels also recommended on Monday that EU member states reintroduce restrictions on US travellers entering their countries.

The decision to remove the US from the bloc’s “safe list” of countries came as the Delta variant is sending infections and hospitalisations soaring in the States. It is now registering more than 1,000 new cases per day, the highest level since March.

The US’ vaccination campaign has stalled in recent months and fallen significantly behind the EU’s inoculation efforts. The EU announced that 70% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 53% in the United States.

Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Montenegro and North Macedonia were also removed from the safe list.

Fresh Belarus sanctions soon

As Poland declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus, the European Commission confirmed it is preparing fresh sanctions against Belarus over the flood of migrants across the country’s borders.

Luc Devigne, deputy managing director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional cooperation and OSCE at the European External Action Service (EEAS) told MEPs during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that a fifth-round of measures is in the work against President Alexander Lukashenko and his regime.

“Obviously we will continue fighting against this terrible instrumentalisation of migrants and human misery by the Lukashenko regime. Fighting against that obviously will include sanctions and work on the fifth package is starting now with the member state,” Devigne said on Thursday.

“And obviously…monitoring courts and judges and prosecutors who are aiding the repression of the poor Belarusian population is a key factor,” the EEAS official added.

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Latvia, Lithuania and Poland accuse Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of sending migrants – mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq – across their borders, in order to destabilise their countries.

They say Lukashenko is taking advantage of the EU’s perceived weakness on migration and according to the Lithuanian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mantas Adomėnas, tougher action is needed to prevent it from continuing.

“This cannot be left without a strong and swift EU response, as Lukashenko will continue to later disregard international commitments and continue to use, not only sort-of hybrid schemes against the EU, but will also definitely will try to come up with new schemes and new methods of destabilisation and new kinds of hybrid attacks,” Adomėnas said.

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