In search of a means of allowing the president of Belarus to participate in an Eastern European summit in Prague, the Union's foreign ministers will today (16 March) try to apply the experience of the recent participation of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in another EU summit.
During the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in December 2007, which took place under the Portuguese EU Presidency, the EU did not bar Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe from attending, despite European Union sanctions against him.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in particular made a special effort throughout the summit not to rub shoulders with Mugabe.
An EU travel ban had been imposed on Mugabe, who has been in power in Zimbabwe since 1980, amid allegations that electoral fraud helped his re-election in 2002.
The presence of Mugabe in Lisbon was heavily criticised by human rights groups and to some extent cast a shadow over the Portuguese EU Presidency.
There is still no consensus in the EU as to whether Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, seen as 'Europe's last dictator', should attend the launch event of the Union's 'Eastern Partnership' initiative (EurActiv 04/12/08) at a summit in Prague.
Held on 7 May, the summit will bring together EU leaders and the heads of state of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
According to diplomatic sources, the Dutch and the Swedes are the most opposed to Lukashenko's participation in the meeting. In principle, Prague could take the lead and invite the Belarusian president, but issues of such sensitivity should better be coordinated among the 27, insiders said.
On the other side are Germany and various other countries, which would like to reward Belarus for its recent actions. Minsk gained political credit in Europe for not recognising the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the military conflict in August 2008. Two months later, the Union temporarily lifted a travel ban on Lukashenko following the release of political prisoners.
EU foreign ministers will also have to decide today what they plan to do regarding these sanctions. Without a decision, the sanctions will be automatically prolonged. One possibility is to extend them for another six months.
Asked by EurActiv recently whether the EU should invite Lukashenko to the Eastern Partnership summit, opposition-minded think-tank representatives from Belarus said the Union could invite Lukashenko, but it should not promise him anything (EurActiv 04/03/09).