EU sanctions: A powerful tool in a ruthless world?

Katharina L. Meissner
Postdoc and Project Leader (FWF M-2573)
Department of Political Science, Centre for European Integration Research (EIF), University of Vienna

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. The EU’s response came immediately in the form of sanctions. The core question, however, was not whether to sanction, but which exact sanctions to impose.

Ever since sanctions were incorporated into the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), their number has risen sharply. In the last decade, the EU has increasingly resorted to restrictive measures, as sanctions are called in EU jargon.

Yet, tough economic sanctions, such as the ones imposed on Russia, tend to be the exception among the restrictive measures. One reason for this is the effects that comprehensive sanctions have on the EU’s supply chains with third countries. Nevertheless, the EU has increasingly adopted tough economic sanctions in recent years.

Comprehensive economic sanctions can be understood as measures that restrict trade relations with a third country and affect at least one entire sector such as energy, financial transactions, or dual-use goods. The EU currently imposes autonomous comprehensive economic sanctions on six countries: Iran, Myanmar/Burma, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Russian-controlled areas in Ukraine. With the exception of Venezuela, these states are subject to a variety of economic sanctions, including dual-use goods as well as financial transactions and certain exports and imports.

Why does the EU opt for comprehensive economic restrictions when targeting states like Russia but also countries like Myanmar/Burma? In a recently published article, I suggest that the EU adopts comprehensive economic sanctions in response to gross violations of human rights or of international law by such states that possess corresponding military capabilities. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the breach of international law is obvious. Also Myanmar/Burma is accused of gross human rights violations against the Rohingya minority.

However, the EU opts for comprehensive economic sanctions only when human rights or international law violations are highly salient in public or when EU member states ally with the United States. The Russian war on Ukraine is unprecedented in this regard. The EU imposes strong economic sanctions together with the United States backed by a broad international community and under public attention.

When talking about sanctions, the public usually refers to restrictive measures that fall under the CFSP. However, the EU has a wide variety of sanctions instruments at its disposal. In fact, such ‘disguised’ sanctions that fall under the EU’s development cooperation or its trade policy are used more frequently than CFSP restrictive measures.

One example for such sanctions ‘under disguise’ is the EU’s generalized scheme of preferences (GSP). With the GSP, the EU privileges developing countries with duty-free imports of certain goods. However, the GSP is linked to conditionality clauses. These clauses refer to values, which the EU seeks to uphold, including democracy, the rule of law and human rights. If a developing country breaches any of these values, the European Commission can initiate a procedure so that the GSP is temporarily or completely suspended. So far this has happened in four cases: Myanmar/Burma (1997), Belarus (2007), Sri Lanka (2010) and Cambodia (2020).

Association and trade agreements with third countries, too, are subject to conditionality clauses. Similar to the GSP, international agreements can be suspended temporarily or completely in case of rights violations. In its relations with the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) countries, the EU has already made frequent use of this possibility.

Despite this arsenal of instruments, researchers document a low success rate of sanctions. One reason for this is the very definition of sanctions’ (in-)effectiveness. Even if sanctions do not bring about any immediate change in behaviour in the target state, they may still send a strong signal to the target and the international community.

Yet, sanctions, especially comprehensive economic ones, also bring about humanitarian consequences that affect the population in a target country. This happens in a vast majority of sanctions cases; for UN sanctions, for example, they occur in 94 percent of cases. Unfortunately, there is a high risk of sanctions’ unintended consequences also in the case of Russia. Unintended consequences of comprehensive economic measures occur primarily when the country is led by a stable, authoritarian regime that has strong control over the media. The regime can then shape the sanctions’ narrative while establishing economic channels with alternative trading partners, as is the case in Russia with China.

Still, even if researchers are pessimistic about the success of sanctions, it is necessary to keep in mind the current horrific situation. The EU needs to clearly signal with tough restrictive measures that the Russian war on Ukraine is not acceptable under any circumstances.

This work was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) [grant number M-2573].

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