EU sanctions will hit military leaders responsible for the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi but will not curtail its trade preferences for the Myanmar.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks to the media as he arrives to attend an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, February 22, 2021.
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks to the media as he arrives to attend an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, February 22, 2021. (Yves Herman/Pool / Reuters)

European Union foreign ministers have agreed to sanction the Myanmar military over its seizure of power and to withhold some development aid, the bloc's top envoy said.

"We took the political agreement to apply sanctions targeting the military responsible for the coup and their economic interests," foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. 

"All direct financial support from our development system to the government reform programmes is withheld," he added. 

The ministers from the 27-nation bloc met in Brussels for a packed agenda on Monday that includes a wide-ranging videoconference with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Shortly after the start, they issued a statement on Myanmar, saying "the EU stands ready to adopt restrictive measures targeting those directly responsible for the military coup and their economic interests."

“The European Union calls for de-escalation of the current crisis through an immediate end to the state of emergency, the restoration of the legitimate civilian government and the opening of the newly elected parliament,” the ministers said in a statement as they met in Brussels on Monday.

"All other tools at the disposal of the European Union and its Member States will be kept under review,” the ministers said.

Such sanctions usually involve a freeze on people’s assets and a ban on them travelling to Europe.

Myanmar’s military junta prevented parliament from convening on February 1. It claimed that last November’s elections, won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in a landslide, were tainted by fraud. The election commission that confirmed the victory has since been replaced by the junta.

READ MORE: Myanmar protests swell despite junta's threats of lethal force

READ MORE: Myanmar's anti-coup protests turn deadly again after police open fire

Sanctions on Russia

There were also expectations they would pull the trigger on sanctions against Russian officials over the jailing of opposition leader Navalny and repression of his supporters.

Any such move would come two weeks after Borrell was caught in a diplomatic ambush in Moscow that enraged member states. The mood towards Russia hardened in the wake of Borrell's disastrous trip, during which Moscow announced the expulsion of three European diplomats and rebuffed talk of cooperation.

Capitals are eyeing using the EU's new human rights sanctions regime for the first time to hit individuals responsible for the Russian clampdown with asset freezes and visa bans, diplomats said.

"It's clear that Russia is on a confrontational course with the European Union," Borrell said, calling for a "united and determined" response.

Diplomats said they expect a political agreement to be reached on punishing Russian officials – with the list of names to be worked out in the coming days.

"There is a very large majority supporting the adoption of new sanctions," Romania's Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said.

Two of Navalny's closest associates called for the targeting of President Vladimir Putin's closest associates — including oligarchs — after meetings with eight EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

READ MORE: Russian court convicts Alexey Navalny of defamation, slaps fine

"If it's just 10 Kremlin officials who don't travel abroad and don't have assets abroad, then, indeed, it would not be painful," Navalny's key aide Leonid Volkov said.

European diplomats say only those directly implicated in the clampdown can be targeted because the list needs to withstand any court challenge.

The EU has already hit Russia with waves of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow's fuelling of the war in Ukraine.

The bloc in October slapped six officials on a blacklist over the August poisoning of Navalny with Novichok, a nerve agent.

Putin's most prominent domestic critic was this month jailed for almost three years after returning to Russia following treatment in Germany.

His sentencing sparked nationwide protests that saw baton-wielding security forces detain thousands of people.

Myanmar coup and military's harsh response 

The coup was a major setback to Myanmar’s transition to democracy after 50 years of army rule that began with a 1962 coup. Suu Kyi came to power after her party won a 2015 election, but the generals retained substantial power under a military-drafted constitution.

Around 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced, with 593, including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, still in detention, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The EU ministers condemned the arrests and called for the unconditional release of the president, Suu Kyi and all those held since the coup.

They also condemned the security crackdown and expressed solidarity with citizens, saying that any sanctions they impose are not aimed at ordinary people.

Despite the junta’s thinly veiled threat to use lethal force if people answered a call for a general strike, and roadblocks around the US Embassy in Yangon, more than a thousand protesters gathered there on Monday. Military trucks and riot police stood nearby.

READ MORE: Kremlin critic Navalny gets some Valentine’s Day love with flash protests

Blinken calling

The ongoing repression in Belarus is set to feature as the EU weighs whether it needs to introduce a fourth round of sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

Ministers are also set to discuss China's crackdown on Hong Kong and see if the EU needs to beef up its response as Beijing tightens it grip.

The focus will pivot to cooperation when Blinken joins for his first full talks with the bloc, with all sides looking to put the tensions of the Trump era behind them.

The discussion looks likely to range from a joint approach to common adversaries like Russia and China to the pressing issue of trying to bring the US back into the Iran deal.

The EU is currently looking to broker a meeting between Washington, Tehran and other signatories — including Moscow — to try to work out how to salvage the accord after Trump quit it in 2018.

READ MORE: IAEA strikes deal with Iran to cushion coming blow of slashed access

Source: TRTWorld and agencies