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Tough Talk, No Strategy? Increasing role of sanctions in EU Foreign Policy

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks during her visit to Kenya © European External Action Service (EEAS)

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks during her visit to Kenya © European External Action Service (EEAS)

As the EU is dragged into coping with the ongoing financial crisis, there has been a lively discussion what will be the consequences on the EU’s foreign policy in the long-term forecast. Most of the arguments deal with a question of how the nature of the EU Crisis Management will change in the upcoming years, as EU Member States are less and less willing to contribute to the EU’s activities under an umbrella of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). However, as it turns out, one of the instruments in the EU’s foreign policy tool-box, which has been so far overlooked in the last years, seems to swiftly evolve into a prominent tool filling the raising gap.

Indeed, in respect to implementation of sanctions as a ‘default’ response to human rights violations, political turmoil, democratic backsliding or security threats beyond EU borders, sanctions have been enormously gaining more prominent place in the EU’s foreign policy and developed as the EU’s widely used instrument. A look at the last 3 previous years give us a picture of a sharp increase in use of sanctions. While in 2010 EU implemented 22 decisions in this respect, a year later it was already 69. That means a use of sanctions more than tripled in one single year.

Yet never before sanctions reached high numbers like this. A year 2012, accordingly, introduced many policy analysis trying to figure out what does the rising number of sanctions tell us about direction of the EU’s foreign policy. Two larger analysis, notably, stand at the forefront of the whole debate. The first one is the recently published Policy Brief ‘Shooting in the Dark? EU Sanctions Policies’ by Konstanty Gebert, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). A credit for the later one goes to Stephan Lehne, Visiting Scholar at the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for his analysis ‘The Role of Sanctions in the EU Foreign Policy’.

Both authors agree, that sanctions “becoming one of the European Union’s favorite foreign-policy tools” and that “sanctions seem to have become the EU’s new default response to international challenges”. However, as both authors continue in the same breath, there seems to be a negative side of the rapidly expanding numbers of sanctions. In particular, whether sanctions have really the effect for which they are usually praised for and whether they can push states effectively to the wall, does not seem to be so clear yet.

What are the roots of the recent boom?

Firstly, the EU is obviously more than well positioned to use sanctions as its core foreign-policy tool. Latest statistics show, that only with 7% of the world’s population, the EU counts for 25,8 % of world GDP, and its trade with the rest of the world accounts for around 20% of global exports and imports (excluding intra EU trade). This clearly makes the EU not only the biggest trade player in the world, but also the biggest importer, the biggest exporter and the biggest investor. That said, given these advantages placing the EU at the core of the international trade system, one might wonder why it has taken so long for the EU to pull the sanctions out of its foreign-policy tool-box and place them at the forefront of its foreign policy actions.

Surprisingly, while 1980s saw a limited number of sanctions, the main trigger can be identified in the Balkan Crisis, which lifted up the number and the EU rapidly started to use sanction more systematically. Following decade witnessed steadily growth of a use of sanction. However, even though growth was slow but persistent, it was in the beginning of 2010, when the number of sanctions literally took off. As is already mentioned in the first lines, while in 2010 EU implemented 22 decisions in this respect, a year later it was already 69 (needless to say, that a big portion targeted Iran, Syria and Libya). Why has the EU, then, discovered the use of sanctions so late and has been massively expanding its use only in the recent years?

S. Lehne identifies in his analysis these factors standing behind the increase: Firstly, it is rather easy to adapt sanctions, even though once they are under way, it is more difficult to jump off. Freezing of assets, banning oil imports and adapting travel restrictions on regime officials has the advantage, that used sanctions do not target the population as a whole, at least not primarily. Besides, there are virtually no cost in sanctioning individuals from states with massive human rights violations or presenting security threats to the International order (especially in a form of travel restrictions). Secondly, one can agree that austerity measures and overall financial crisis at the European continent favors using sanctions. With the ongoing austerity measures less and less states are willing to contribute to Crisis Management operations under CFSP/CSDP. A use of sanctions, arguably, presents a way of limiting impact of the adopted policies on the budget itself, but also is not demanding in terms of ‘political energy’. Last but not least, as he continues, sanctions adopted by the UN has also influenced the EU’s view on this particular area. Specifically, it was the Obama’s sanctions against the Iranian regime from 2009, which were based on UN Security Council Resolution and which took on board not only the main EU Member States, but also those European states being so far reluctant to this foreign policy tool.

Making the ‘sanctions machine’ more effective?

While all aforementioned factors mutually contributed to the current state of play, it does not offer an answer on whether the ‘sanctions machine’, as The Economist quipped one of the European ministers, is at the end effective. Although to measure overall effectiveness in terms or reaching desired goals is far from being easy, as both authors agree. K. Gebert points out in his Policy Brief few particular adjustments the EU has to take into account if the sanctions ought to me more effective.

Firstly, as there is no procedure on the EU level to verify the implementation of sanctions, there is a pressing need to develop a better monitoring system. Secondly, in certain cases less can be more. Extensive sanction targeting various actors and level in the targeted regime will hardly achieve, that the regime will be willing to accept them. Consequently, a way forward might be when sanctions are used in a smaller scale (starting with releasing political prisoners, for instance). Thirdly, regimes should be ‘rewarded’ for good behaving. If the regime faces a ‘domino effect’ of escalating sanction from the EU, it is hard to expect some political changes or at least stepping out of the internally set up political directions. If the EU would communicate more precisely what is the desired goals of the EU and International community in general, and under what circumstances sanctions can be lifted, the effectiveness, according to K. Gebert, would be higher.

Sanctions…but what next?

As one proverb goes, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’. And indeed, as it seems, not even a greater effectiveness might put sanctions at the pedestal of the EU’s foreign policy tool-box in the future. S. Lehne hits the point in his analysis by giving assumption of what could happen, if sanctions start overshadowing the EU’s in parallel existing instruments at its disposal: „The EU is still a relatively weak international actor. If current trends continue, it risks turning itself into a ‘sanctions machine’. And while it uses its energy and resources to build complex sanctions regimes, it will leave diplomatic initiatives and political crisis management to others, including at times to some of its own member states. The idea of the EU as a toolbox rather than as an international actor might appeal to some, but it certainly does not do justice to the objectives of the EU treaty and the ambitions of many member states.“ Indeed, there are reasonable doubts that the EU’s Foreign Policy tool-box overflowing with sanctions as a ‘default response’ to ‘not-so-well-behaved regimes’ could potentially undermine effectiveness and credibility of the Common Foreign and Security Policy as such. Also The Economist is aware of the consequences: “Europe needs to do more than respond to every problem with fresh sanctions (…) just thinking up new sanctions every month does not amount to a strategy.”



S. Lehne, The Role of Sanctions in EU Foreign Policy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14 December 2012 (

Tough Talk, No Strategy? The Economist, 3 March 2012. (

K. Gebert, Shooting in the Dark? EU Sanctions Policies, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, 11 January 2013 (




Petr Pribyla

Petr Pribyla specializes in a broad area of the EU’s external policies with focus on the Common Foreign and Security Policy /Common Security and Defence Policy (CFSP/CSDP), Human Rights and in general on the EU’s role in post-conflict reconstructions in third countries.
Petr currently resides in The Hague (The Netherlands) where he works as a Research Intern at the Centre for the Law of EU External Relations (CLEER) at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut. From March 2013 onwards Petr starts as a Stagaire at European External Action Service (EEAS), Human Rights Policy Instruments and Bilateral Cooperation Unit.
Since 2010 he has been also Non-resident Research Assistant at the Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization (CCHRD) at the International Politics and Human Rights department. Petr recently obtained his one-year post-graduate E.MA degree at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratization (EIUC) in Venice (Italy). For the E.MA thesis research was hosted by KU Leuven (Belgium), at the Human Rights Institute. He holds MA degree in Political Science with specialization in Human Rights and Democratization at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) from 2011 (the MA thesis nominated for the European Young Scholar Awards 2011). Part of his MA studies he spent at University of Helsinki (Finland) and National Chengchi University in Taipei (Taiwan). Petr is author of more than 30 articles in the respective field. His articles appeared e.g. in the Democracy Digest; The Global Politics Journal; the Bulletin of the Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization; the Czech Republic Human Rights Review; Euractiv.
All opinions in this blog are solely mine.
You can follow him on Twitter @petrpribyla