By Andrew Rettman
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Member states have rejected European Commission proposals to punish Belarus with mini-trade sanctions in a surprising move, but the battle over the decision is not over yet.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia on Tuesday (26 September) voted against the proposal to suspend Belarus from the EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) on trade, while other, unnamed EU countries abstained.
The negative result from Tuesday's expert committee or "working group" meeting means that EU ambassadors or foreign ministers will have to vote on the matter afresh in the next few weeks.
A positive result would have cleared the way for EU foreign ministers to formally announce the GSP move in mid-October and for the commission to impose tariffs on imports of Belarusian wood, textiles and minerals in mid-2007.
Poland, Latvia and Lithuania - who are staunch critics of Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko - fear the tariffs would impact ordinary Belarusian people and damage the EU's profile in Belarus.
"It came as a little bit of a surprise to everybody," a Lithuanian diplomat said. "We are worried about the negative political consequences the decision could have."
The GSP move would also impact small, cross-border traders in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania - all of whom share frontiers with Belarus.
The European Commission and international trade unions have been lining up the decision for over a year, on the grounds that Belarus violates GSP rules such as freedom of assembly.
As late as last week, EU officials felt certain the move would go through with no problems, saying the EU stands to lose credibility if it does not act in the black-and-white case.
"The commission continues to believe the suspension of GSP privileges is extremely important and will continue to argue strongly for the decision," a commission spokesman said.