Belarus is the European Union’s 46th trade partner and its 3rd trading partner among the six Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. At the same time, the EU is the second trade partner for Belarus after Russia and accounts for above one quarter of its total trade. Interestingly, Belarus has the least stabilised contractual relations with the EU, among the Commonwealth of Independent States, as the bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that was concluded in 1995, has not been ratified by the EU for political reasons. On top of that, Belarus is not a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) yet.
We must admit though that over the past several years EU-Belarus relations have gone through difficult stages. Since December 2010, and after a post-election crackdown and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, the EU has applied restrictions and conducted the policy of critical engagement with the country. As a result, the cooperation with Belarus — except for programmes related to civil society — was put on hold.
Since 2014, EU-Belarus relations have been on an improving path. As of the 1st of March 2016, the EU has lifted most of the sanctions and in April 201, the Bloc established the EU-Belarus Coordination Group as a new and more comprehensive format for bilateral dialogue.
In parallel, the EU is enhancing cooperation with Belarus through bilateral sectoral dialogues on economic and financial issues, customs, energy, and environment and on trade. The latter dialogue was launched in October 2016, in Minsk and is aimed at enhancing bilateral cooperation on trade and trade-related matters – in particular Belarus’ accession to the WTO, which has been pending since 1993 – improving the exchange of information on bilateral trade between the EU and Belarus, as well as analysing and assisting in resolving specific trade matters.
The EU is encouraging Belarus to accede to the WTO as soon as possible as it would contribute to the modernisation of the country’s economy, would improve public governance and diversify its exports. Also, accession to the WTO would enhance the investment climate, as well as the transparency and predictability of the legal framework. As a result it could spur economic growth and jobs in the country.
To this end European Commission services and the EU Member States are working on supporting Belarus in its accession to the WTO. Belarus benefits from the majority of the EaP regional programmes and the EU has stepped up its financial support for 2016 to €29 million under the European Neighbourhood Instrument. The dedicated programmes will start in 2017 and will focus on regional and private sector development (SPRING programme); as well as on migration and asylum management and technical cooperation. They will support both structural reforms and the development of SMEs.
It should be underlined that the EU would like to support Belarus in its reform processes while continuing the policy of the so called critical engagement and the step-by-step approach that is aimed at enhancing and deepening cooperation with government and Belarusian society. Only tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal fundamental freedoms, rule of law and human rights as well as its strong commitments to the reforms will remain key for shaping of the EU policy towards Belarus and achieving its full potential.