European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner (Austria) is always brightly elegant. Her colour palette knows all shades – turquoise, white, carmine, dusky pink. Commissioner’s friendly smile has earned her the nickname Ferrero-Kuesschen ("Ferrero Kiss"), after the famous chocolate pralines. Born on the same day with philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx, she was the first female Foreign Minister of Austria.

Office for a Democratic Belarus: Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner, do you share the view voiced by some that Brussels and Washington have done more for the Belarusian people than Belarusian opposition parties and movements?

Benita Ferrero-Waldner: All actors involved are doing their best to help Belarus out of its current self-isolation. At the moment we finance an independent media project which broadcasts in Belarusian and Russian on radio, TV and on the internet to help widen the resources of information available to Belarusian people. We also support Belarusian students at the European Humanity University in exile in Vilnius but also in Poland and Ukraine. We further contribute in a very tangible manner to efforts to tackle the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. We support the efforts in the social and educational field, and the efforts to develop civil society.

We would like to do more, but it’s up to the people of Belarus to decide on their own future. We will continue to support those who want reform and closer ties with Europe, but in the end Belarus will work out its own destiny.

ODB: How could you interpret for the Belarusians the results of the European Council in June 2007?

BFW: Due to the significant progress made in deepening of economic, financial, thematic, regional and civil society dimension of European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the European Council in June reaffirmed the crucial importance of this policy to foster prosperity, stability and security in the Neighbourhood countries. These are based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

We have always expressed our wish to have Belarus as a full partner in the framework of the ENP. This would be in the interest of all parties and a real benefit to the people of Belarus. But in order for this to happen, we need to see a real move towards democratisation.

ODB: Are you satisfied with the current development of the EU-Belarus relations? Could both sides, do more?

BFW: We welcome the release of some political prisoners and the agreement to open a Delegation of the European Commission in Minsk. The next step should now be the actual signature of the establishment agreement. But to see a real breakthrough in our relations we need stronger signals. The release of all political prisoners is of the prime concern for us, as are real changes to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law, such as changes to the electoral code and real moves to guarantee freedom of expression.

Belarus also needs to comply with key labour rights related to freedom of association: the Commission first raised this issue more than 4 years ago. We regret that Belarus has not taken any concrete measures to respect the trade unions’ rights despite repeated calls by the Commission and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). We hope that the Belarusian authorities will now act to ensure the respect of the Belarusian workers rights. The situation is now in the hands of the Belarusian authorities. It is our strongest wish to see labour rights respected, and thereby to be able to reverse the withdrawal of GSP preferences: as soon as Belarus complies with its ILO obligations, the Commission will propose that GSP preferences are reinstated to Belarus.
More generally, if we see strong signals from Belarus, the next step could be the start of negotiations on an ENP Action Plan.

ODB: Why is the policy proposal of the EU Commission called a non-paper? How would things change in Belarus if Minsk fulfils the 12 requirements?

BFW: Since the Government of Belarus favours a policy of self-isolation, we issued a message to the people of Belarus explaining what they would gain from engaging with the EU on the basis of true democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
If Belarus respected those principles, we would work together to achieve improvements in people's lives. To name a few: new trade and job opportunities, better provisions of health care and education, transport and energy networks and greater cross-border cooperation.

ODB: Have you ever been to Belarus?

BFW: No, I have never travelled to Belarus before.

ODB: What would you as a Commissioner wish Europe in its relations with Belarus?

BFW: As the European Commissioner for External Relations and the European Neighbourhood Policy I would very much like to see a new chapter opening in relations between Belarus and the European Union. This would be for the benefit of everyone, but first of all for the people of Belarus who miss out a lot in the current situation.
I would like to be able to extend to Belarus the same offer of partnership that we have made to other neighbours like Ukraine and Moldova. I would like Belarus to benefit from closer trade relations with the EU, to facilitate travelling to Europe, and raise the living standards through ENP programmes and policies.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner has been Member of the European Commission in charge of External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy since 2004.
Born in 1948 in Salzburg, Austria. University of Salzburg, study of Law, PhD. Until 1984 worked in private sector, then entered diplomatic service. Held different positions at the Austrian embassies in Spain, Senegal, France; at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Was UN Chief of Protocol (1993 – 1995), State Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1995-2000), Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Austria (2000-2004). Member of the conservative Austrian People's Party.
Speaks English, French, Italian, Spanish. Married. Enjoys cycling, swimming, reading.

Interview conducted by Maryna Rakhlei
for the Office for a Democratic Belarus