The EU Wants to Enhance Its Sanctions Regime

9 MINS READDec 25, 2018 | 18:00 GMT
A proposal working its way through the European Union would expand the reasons for the imposition of sanctions by the bloc.

European Union flags outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

  • The European Union is currently discussing new tools to impose targeted sanctions against individuals and institutions responsible for human rights violations.
  • This proposal seeks to give the European Union additional options to impose pressure on governments and institutions, though the effectiveness of targeted sanctions is still a matter of debate within the bloc.
  • Political interests and national strategies will continue to influence the European Union's foreign policy, which means that a new sanctions regime would still face the same kinds of limits that characterize the existing ones.

The European Union is working on a new institutional framework to punish human rights violations around the world. In early December, EU member states endorsed a Dutch proposal to target people and entities that violate human rights with punitive measures such as asset freezes and travel bans. While the European Union has used human rights violations in part to justify sanctions in the past, the Dutch proposal would make the issue the primary trigger of sanctions.

The proposal is still in the early stages, and there is not a concrete deadline for approval. In the coming months the European External Action Service will work on the details of the new sanctions regime, which, if implemented, would mark the next step in the evolution of a continental bloc that over the past decades has become more active in sanctioning individuals and entities around the world. However, institutional limits, such as the need for unanimity when it comes to approving sanctions, would still limit their effects.

The Big Picture

The European Union is an active global force when it comes to imposing economic sanctions against countries and targeted sanctions against individuals and entities. The bloc is currently discussing a plan that would give it additional tools with which to impose sanctions. This would mark another step in the European Union's push to develop a more assertive foreign policy.

The Dutch Plan

Since the mid-1990s, the European Union has been a pioneer in the imposition of punitive measures that target specific individuals or institutions rather than entire economies. This approach seeks to target the people seen as directly responsible for actions that the European Union wants to punish rather than imposing hardships on a broader population. While Europeans tend to view this strategy as more specific and flexible than countrywide sanctions, it is not without drawbacks. For starters, affected individuals often mount successful challenges to sanctions in the European Court of Justice. Also, targeted sanctions have yet to prove more effective than their broader counterparts. One thing has improved in recent years, however. While in the early days of targeted sanctions, EU members routinely ignored the bloc's decisions, such as visa bans, their enforcement has strengthened significantly in recent years.

The Dutch plan marks the next step in the evolution of targeted sanctions in the European Union. With the exception of terrorism lists, EU sanctions lists are currently linked to specific countries and specific events. The Dutch proposal seeks to decouple people from countries and allow for the blacklisting of specific individuals who are connected to human rights abuses even without a specific trigger in the country where they operate. This is why the Dutch proposal has been described as Europe's version of the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which allows the U.S. government to sanction people implicated in human rights abuses or significant corruption anywhere in the world. In addition to the United States, EU members such as the United Kingdom, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have Magnitsky-like sanctions regimes.

But the Dutch government is trying to avoid making too many references to Sergei Magnitsky, the murdered Russian anti-corruption activist after whom the U.S. sanctions regime is named, preferring to use the less politically charged "EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime." The Netherlands has also made it clear that the new regime would target human rights abuses in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar. By doing so, the Dutch government seeks to deflect accusations that its proposal will be aimed at Russia, and to gain support from those EU governments seen as friendly to Moscow, such as Italy and Hungary. However, 100 lawmakers from 18 EU states explicitly mentioned Russia and Magnitsky in an open letter published in early December in support of the Dutch plan.

The proposal encourages the European Union to create a special committee in charge of both identifying the people and entities who would be included on blacklists and proposing sanctions against them. This committee would focus on grave human rights violations, such as torture and extrajudicial killings. It also would be independent from national governments, which in theory would free it from the kinds of political calculations that are often present when governments consider sanctions.

An Active Sanctions User

Sanctions are an important element of EU foreign policy. In fact, the bloc is the world's second-most active user of sanctions after the United States. But this has not always been the case. Until the 1980s, the European Community (the European Union's predecessor) rarely imposed collective sanctions, because for the most part member states individually adopted punitive measures approved by the United Nations Security Council. Things began to change in the 1990s when the European Community became the European Union and the bloc introduced the Common Security and Defence Policy, an attempt to have a more coordinated foreign policy at the continental level.

Most EU sanctions in the 1990s and 2000s did not target entire economic sectors, as the bloc generally chose to impose visa bans and asset freezes on individuals rather than trade embargoes on countries. While this practice continues (with the exception of arms embargoes, the European Union rarely imposes far-reaching economic sanctions), the bloc has been more willing to expand the scope of its sanctions in recent years.

A chart listing current EU sanctions against countries around the world.

The punitive measures against Iran in 2010 marked a turning point in the EU sanctions regime, because they went beyond Security Council requirements to include an oil embargo and a series of financial sanctions that, in addition to damaging the Iranian economy, affected European companies doing business with Iran. Shortly after that, the European Union banned the import of Syrian oil and natural gas without waiting for the Security Council to propose its own sanctions. Then in 2014, the European Union adopted a series of economic sanctions against Russia to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea and supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

The imposition of sanctions does not necessarily lead to the suspension of political or economic relations with the targeted country. The European Union often continues cooperating with countries under a sanctions regime. For example, the European Union did not stop humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe or Myanmar despite its sanctions, and the EU arms embargo on China, which has been in place since 1989, has not prevented their bilateral trade from growing over the past three decades.

Opportunities and Challenges

Even with new legal tools, the European Union would face old constraints when it comes to imposing punitive measures on individuals and entities. EU sanctions must be approved by unanimity, which means each member state has a potential veto. While the Dutch plan envisions that an independent committee would identify people and entities to be sanctioned, the final decision would still rest with national governments.

As a result, while many governments probably would push to use the new sanctions regime to broaden the scope of the European Union's punitive measures, political calculations and national interests will continue to influence the bloc's foreign policy. This will have at least two effects. First, there probably will be disputes between member states pushing for long blacklists of human rights violators and governments defending more modest lists. Second, EU governments will find it easier to reach unanimity to target high-ranking individuals from some countries or regions than to target people from countries that have strong strategic connections with the bloc. In other words, human rights sanctions on individuals from places like sub-Saharan Africa would be less controversial than sanctions on people from countries like Russia.

The European Commission wants to replace unanimity with a qualified majority when it comes to foreign policy decisions such as sanctions, but the idea is controversial, especially because smaller member states see their veto power as a protection against the political influence of the larger states. According to Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, "the political decision for introducing sanctions is always taken at political level by unanimity, and this will not change whatever system we have in place."

At the same time, the effectiveness of the new sanctions regime could be modest if the European Union refuses to enforce the measures beyond its territory. U.S. sanctions are extraterritorial, which means the United States is willing to enforce them anywhere in the world (for example, the White House has said it is willing to target foreign companies that carry business with Iran even if they do not operate in the United States). On the contrary, EU sanctions are enforced only within the bloc, which somewhat reduces their potency.

Finally, there is the perennial question of the effectiveness of sanctions, as these measures often fail to force targets to change their behaviors. For example, many EU member states argue that the sanctions against Russia have not persuaded Moscow to let go of Crimea or end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, while they have hurt European companies that do business with Russia. Defenders of sanctions, on the contrary, argue that they represent an important foreign policy tool even if they do not result in the desired change.

If the new sanctions regime is approved, the European Union will have additional tools to use to target people and entities around the world who are responsible for human rights violations. The bloc also could use the measure to go beyond human rights issues and target those connected with corruption and authoritarianism. Considering that European countries are an attractive destination for political, military and business figures from around the world, the new policy would give the European Union additional ways to conduct its foreign affairs, even if the impact is more political than practical.

This would mark another step in the European Union's push to create a more coherent foreign policy, especially at a time of competition among the world's top global powers. For months, EU officials and governments have said that the bloc should increase its "strategic autonomy," which means that the European Union should become more efficient, self-sufficient and cohesive on issues ranging from defense to energy policy. While an enhanced sanctions regime would represent a small piece of that strategy, it should be understood within that context.

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