The EU as a Significant Initiator of Sanctions

Improving the mechanism of economic sanctions is one of the most important priorities of the European Union’s foreign policy. Sanctions are a tool to achieve political goals through financial, trade and other restrictions. The importance of this instrument for the EU is determined by at least three factors. First, the European Union has enormous economic, technological and financial strength. The euro has firmly taken second place among the world’s reserve currencies and means of international settlements. Economic power can easily be converted into political opportunity. Second, the EU is still seriously limited in its use of military and political instruments. Brussels is forced to compensate for the bloc’s inability to threaten military action by turning to other tools of influence, among which sanctions are the most attractive. They allow for real damage to be done targeting countries, as well as individual organisations and individuals without significant counter-damage to the EU itself. Third, sanctions are the result of a common European foreign policy. The very fact of their use symbolises the unity of the EU, even when it comes to purely symbolic measures.

The European Union’s sanctions are unilateral restrictions. In other words, Brussels introduces them, bypassing the UN Security Council. Presently, the UN Security Council is the only legitimate source of international restrictions. Independent actions by states and international organisations are unilateral measures. However, the European Union carefully complies with UN Security Council resolutions, that is, it largely adheres to international sanctions introduced by the UNSC, but at the same time reserves the opportunity to introduce its own.

In the EU, sanctions are adopted by the EU Council on the basis of consensus. Usually, the Council creates a legal mechanism for the use of sanctions on a particular issue (for example, human rights, cyber security, the situation in individual countries, etc.). The mechanism consists of two components — a decision-making component and an EU Council regulation. As a rule, these documents contain annexes that include lists of individuals and legal entities subject to certain sanctions. The most common types of restrictions are blocking sanctions (freezing assets in the EU and a ban on transactions with unsanctioned persons in the EU jurisdiction), as well as visa restrictions. The practice of sectoral sanctions emerges, that is, restrictions against individual sectors of the target country’s economy (such sanctions are in effect against Russia). Draft decisions on sanctions are prepared by the European External Action Service. The decisions of the EU Council are binding on the member states. That is, nation states that are members of the European Union are responsible for the implementation of the EU sanctions.

What does the EU sanctions policy actually look like? How often does the EU impose sanctions in comparison with other players? Who are they against? Let’s look at the sanctions statistics published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). In 2020, a total of 850 such episodes were recorded worldwide. This includes both the introduction of new sanctions and their lifting or mitigation. There are also threats of the use of sanctions, draft decisions, resolutions, and the implementation of existing mechanisms.

The expected leader in terms of the number of sanctions episodes is the United States — which accounts for 449 events out of 850, that is, more than half (52%). 110 events (12.9%) are associated with the European Union. However, the European Union ranks second after the United States. For comparison, Britain is the initiator of 62 events (7.2%), and the UN Security Council — 58 events (6.8%). Russia accounts for 16 events (1.88%), and China — only 12 (1.41%).

The figures of the European Union increase significantly if we add the actions of the member states. There were 39 such events. Here we can also add the actions of EU partners which have announced their accession to the EU sanctions regimes (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Albania, etc.). They account for 35 more episodes. The total “European segment” comprises 184 events or 21%. That is, we are talking about a very significant share.

It is interesting to look at the distribution of the targets of the EU sanctions. They include Russia (22 events), Belarus (12 events), Syria (11 events), Venezuela (5 events), Iran (6 events), Turkey (5 events) and Libya (4 events). 6 events are related to the topic of human rights, and 5 events are related to countering terrorism. Of course, not all of these events are negative. Of the 110 episodes initiated directly by the EU, 61 events (55.45%) are negative; 37 events (33.63%) are neutral. They often involve the threat of imposing sanctions, but do not imply specific solutions. Only 12 events are positive (10.9%). These include, for example, humanitarian exemptions from sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic.

The source of most of the events is the EU Council (57 episodes out of 110). 7 events are non-binding resolutions of the European Parliament, and 25 events are actions of the European Commission. It is noteworthy that 11 events have been attributed to court orders. Cases where the decisions of the EU Council have been challenged in the European Court of Justice are widespread.

In the future, the European Union will remain a significant initiator of sanctions. One of the problems is their implementation. They are now being implemented by member countries, but there is no single coordinating mechanism that would allow for the widest range of tasks to share a common denominator: starting with a unified database of people and entities subject to sanctions, and ending with the systematisation of coercive measures for violation of these EU restrictions. It is possible that in the foreseeable future, an attempt will be made to create an EU analogue of the American OFAC, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is part of the US Treasury.

From our partner RIAC

Ivan Timofeev
Ivan Timofeev
RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.