European leaders were quick to condemn a military coup in Myanmar on Monday, but it looks likely to take them significantly longer to agree on any action against the junta that has detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won elections in November.
While U.S. President Joe Biden called on the Myanmar military to “immediately relinquish” power and pledged to review U.S. sanctions, the putsch leaders are insisting they will stay in power for 12 months under a state of emergency decree.
In the EU, the main options range from extending sanctions on top generals to limiting some of Myanmar’s preferential trade terms.
For now, EU diplomats say they are using “the typical diplomacy toolbox” on Myanmar, which means starting with political appeals that can then advance to include further sanctions. Myanmar is expected to be discussed on Tuesday in the Political and Security Committee, the EU body that deals with security and defense matters. “I can hardly see any good news from the regime but we need to move gradually, like in all these cases,” said one of the diplomats. Two senior EU diplomats argued that further EU sanctions could target some of the generals.
Some diplomats remarked it could be difficult to coordinate joint action with Biden’s administration, and not only because many of the State Department’s key positions remain unfilled. The U.S. was also able to act more nimbly without the need for consultations among 27 member countries. “It depends on the speed of events, they could be quicker than us,” warned one of the senior diplomats.
Since 2018, the EU has adopted a sanctions regime including an enhanced arms embargo, suspension of cooperation with the military, travel bans and asset freezes for 14 individuals. In the current timetable, the measures will be reviewed in April as part of an annual arrangement.
Replying to a question on whether the EU would add more names to the sanctions list, Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs, said: “At this stage, I can’t really tell you whether sanctions will be introduced.”
There are also calls to suspend the EU’s trading system for Myanmar, known as “Everything But Arms,” under which Myanmar businesses enjoy tariff-free access to the EU market for all exports except for weapons and ammunition.
“At this stage, it looks unlikely the EU will revoke EBA,” a diplomat briefed on the situation said.
The “Everything But Arms” duty-free regimes are a major point of EU leverage with emerging markets but attempts to revoke them prove highly controversial, often triggering debates about whether rolling them back would harm poor workers rather than their rulers. The EU finally stripped Cambodia of some tariff-free terms last year over concerns about human rights, but only after highly protracted political tussles.
Heidi Hautala, a vice-president of the European Parliament, said it was now time for the European Commission to consider similar action.
“The military in Myanmar is just a massive conglomerate,” said Hautala, of the Greens group. “The Commission has been looking into suspending EBA, because of [violence against Muslim] Rohingya and Aung San Suu Kyi. I can only believe and trust that the Commission will accelerate the issue of suspension. Economic sanctions will be the most effective measure.”
The Commission’s trade department did not reply to a request for comment on whether EBA would be suspended.
As ever, the key issue is whether it will really be the generals who are squeezed.
“In everything we do, we must remember to protect the people and workers of Myanmar,” said Marianne Vind, vice chair of the European Parliament’s Southeast Asia delegation.
“We must send a strong signal and immediately suspend all aid that goes through the Myanmar government to ensure that it does not end up in the pockets of those who have attacked the democratic institutions. We should also be looking at swift, targeted and immediate sanctions at a European level,” added Vind, from the Socialists & Democrats group.
Pietro Borsano, a business lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, warned about the complicated economic structure in Myanmar along ethnic and geographical lines, which have a bearing on their proximity to the military.
“Businesses and individuals linked to the military do play a very prominent role in Myanmar’s economy, especially in sectors such as construction, real estate, natural resources and mining,” said Borsano. “But on the other hand, many businesses — including some big ones in the hands of ethnic Chinese-Burmese people, such as in the second-biggest city Mandalay — are considered to be outside the orbit of the military and its associated interests.”
Officials at the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign service, were called to a meeting before midnight when news of the coup broke.
On Monday morning, European Council President Charles Michel tweeted his condemnation shortly after 8 a.m., followed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“We are in touch with our international partners on this most pressing issue to ensure a coordinated response,” Borrell said in a statement.
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