How to sanction troublemakers: the EU and sanction design

Plenty is known about why and when sanctions are adopted. Katharina Meissner and Clara Portela argue that research on the design of those sanctions can help us understand their impacts and effectiveness as a foreign policy tool

Why sanction design matters

Most discourse in academe and in mainstream media focuses on when a sanctioning measure is adopted rather than what instruments decision-makers opt for – and how they make such choices. But sanction design is a key, yet neglected, determinant of effectiveness. Academics and policymakers alike need to understand how sanctions packages are designed and how their design affects their success.

Taking together UN-mandated sanctions alongside its own autonomous regimes, the EU already has 44 sanctions regimes in force under its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). As international crises loom, it is considering implementing more. Targets in China, Belarus and Turkey might soon join the list, as bans on all three countries were considered at recent meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council.

Academics and policymakers alike need to understand how sanctions packages are designed and how their design affects their success

Sanction measures range from the targeted freezing of assets owned by specific individuals, to comprehensive, full-on embargoes covering commercial and financial relations. Some highly visible EU sanctions regimes, such as the one on Russia, are far from homogeneous. In fact, they vary greatly, as do sanctions by other actors like the UN and US.

On top of this, international actors have many more sanctions instruments at their disposal other than standard foreign policy sanctions like economic embargoes or financial restrictions. In policy areas such as development cooperation, the European Neighbourhood Policy, and trade relations, decision-makers adopt restrictions in response to perceived misbehaviour by foreign leaderships and non-state actors alike.

These different forms of sanctions are likely to become more important in the future, in view of trends towards democratic backsliding and fundamental rights violations in and beyond Europe.

Targeted sanction design

While measures adopted are invariably dubbed ‘sanctions’, suggesting that they are homogenous packages, they do in fact differ dramatically in scope. Actors like the EU and UN impose primarily targeted, ‘smart’ sanctions that do not intend to harm a country’s population. According to Targeted Sanctions Consortium data, many UN sanctions episodes, however, also include broader bans on arms, commodities or services, while others affect only individuals.

An ongoing project funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF M-2573) created a new dataset on the design of CFSP sanctions, which confirms that Brussels generally uses targeted measures on individuals through asset freezes or travel bans.

Not all restrictions, however, affect only individuals. The EU applied broader measures – including financial restrictions, and sectoral sanctions on commodities and services – to Iran, Myanmar, Russia/Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela. These sanctions regimes, encompassing commodity and financial bans, vary in scope. The sanctions on Russia, for example, restrict trade in the arms and dual-use sector, finance and investment, services for deep-water exploration, and oil industry technologies. Yet it excludes key sectors like gas or aerospace, as well as liabilities arising from contracts prior to August 2014, which waters down the package.

The EU’s sanctions toolbox

CFSP sanctions are by no means the only sanctions imposed by the EU. Researchers have pointed out that non-CFSP measures closely resemble sanctions, and ought to be studied as such, broadening the research agenda.

One sanction type is the suspension of development co-operation, such as the EU’s Partnership with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states. Another is the withdrawal of tariff reductions under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). To these types one could add membership suspension, a sanctions type common in other international organisations, or conditionality clauses in trade agreements.

ACP suspensions tend to be more effective in eliciting concession than CFSP sanctions

Researchers have started to examine CFSP sanctions practice in the round, taking all sanctions (or more than one sanctions type) into account. They have established that ACP suspensions tend to be more effective in eliciting concession than CFSP sanctions, while GSP withdrawals are the least effective.

These three categories of EU sanctions display very different degrees of ‘targeted-ness’; CFSP sanctions are most likely to influence responsible leaders and GSP withdrawals are most general in character.

Does design drive efficacy?

The EU’s diverse sanctions practice is a good test case for exploring how sanction design varies between and across sanction types.

While different areas of EU external relations have been amply dealt with in European studies scholarship, such research has tended to focus on conditionality provisions, rather than on the record of activation. Most importantly, EU trade and development sanctions have rarely been connected to or compared with CFSP sanctions practice. Research on different strands of EU restrictions, such as CFSP sanctions, aid suspensions, and trade conditionality have – and should have – much to teach each other.

An ECPR Joint Sessions Workshop in May 2021 will explore this untapped sanctions research agenda.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Clara Portela Clara Portela Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Valencia More by this author
photograph of Katharina Meissner Katharina Meissner Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Vienna More by this author

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