Sanctions and the rise of a geopolitical EU

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On 24 May 2021, just one day after the hijacking of a plane and the arrest of exiled Belarusian journalist Raman Dzmitryjevič Pratasevič by Belarus President Lukashenko’s regime, EU leaders already convened for a European Council decided that such acts required a forceful common answer. Such an answer would take the form of EU sanctions, a now favourite EU response to most international challenges, and arguably the cornerstone of a nascent common EU foreign policy.

Sanctions against Belarus are all but new. Lukashenko’s regime has been under EU sanctions of some sort most years since 2004. 2016 saw a general lifting of restrictive measures following the liberation of some political prisoners and a general détente in Belarus-EU relations. However, following Lukashenko’s August 2020 reelection in a process that the EU called “neither free nor fair”, new sanctions were imposed and a fourth round of sanctions was already underway. However, the kidnapping of the Belarusian journalist on the Ryanair flight within the EU’s borders persuaded leaders to accelerate and amplify their efforts. In addition to listing individuals and entities linked to Lukashenko and the regime’s repressive apparatus, the EU took a different turn, imposing sectoral sanctions targeting entire industries—banking, oil, tobacco, and fertilizer.

How shall we interpret this shift in how the EU applies sanctions, and will it prove more ‘effective’?

Answering those questions necessitates an exploration of the motives and objectives behind EU sanctions. The EU sanctions all kinds of actors, for all kinds of reasons, using very different types of mechanisms. Assessing their ‘effectiveness’ necessarily means adopting a more nuanced understanding of what sanctions are designed to do. While pundits often paint regime change—or radical policy reversal—as the gold standard in judging if sanctions work, that interpretation often misunderstands what sanctions are designed to do.

The EU: a sanctions ‘super-user’

The EU sanctions a lot, and increasingly so. The EU currently has 44 different sanctions regimes, covering 32 countries. Such numbers position the EU as a ‘super-sanctioner’ on par with the United States. Sanctions are a dominant feature of the EU’s relations with a disparate range of countries, such as Russia, a regional competitor; China, a rising global power; North Korea, a distant security issue; Syria, a destabilising war-torn country at the doors of Europe; or Myanmar and Zimbabwe, remote sites of human rights crises. From outright economic embargo to prevent nuclear proliferation to targeted lists of specific human rights violators, diversity is the rule when one considers the objectives and means behind EU sanctions.

The sanctions policy of the European Union contrasts with recurring perceptions of it as a passive international actor paralysed by internal divisions. While the EU is missing common military or intelligence instruments, its sizable common market make sanctions an attractive instrument for the EU, and they have become a weapon of choice to resolve many foreign policy problems. Some consider the last decade as the  ‘golden age’ of EU sanctions.  But the question largely remains, to what ends?

Magic wand or empty rhetoric?

Public debate concerning sanctions often reveals misunderstandings of what sanctions are designed to do, including contradictory tendencies to either overstate their objectives or underestimate their impact.

One error is to expect that sanctions alone would have the immediate power of toppling a regime or halting a nuclear arms programme. While they are sometimes taken on grandiloquent stands and framed around maximalist objectives, those seldom represent their true purpose. For example, while Crimea has not been returned to the Ukraine, it would be obtuse to say that the US and the EU sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea—and the crash of the MH17 airplane—are a failure. Such a notion of ‘success’ was always very unlikely and most probably not what decision-makers had in mind. While seriously assessing the ‘effectiveness’ of EU sanctions against Russia is complicated and requires counterfactual logic, we know it would at least need to take into account their effects on Russian capabilities and domestic politics, the deterrence effect on both Russia and other international actors, the effects on the EU’s relation with Ukraine and the US, and so on.

Another misconception is to consider sanctions as fruitless forms of “virtue signaling” aimed to appease the domestic population. But even if they are considered this way, it doesn’t mean that they are politically inert. While ‘symbolic’ is often equated with irrelevant in the public debate around sanctions, that perspective neglects the importance of symbols in diplomacy and foreign affairs.

While easily dubbed as symbolic, the EU’s decision to sanction a handful of Chinese regional officials over the situation in Xinjiang—a decision that was always unlikely to alter Chinese policy against the Uyghurs—did not shy away from potential large-scale political repercussion. Precisely because of their symbolic value, China saw it as a matter of ‘principle’ and reacted disproportionately, sanctioning MEPs, MPs, and research institutions around Europe in reprisal. Initiated by ‘symbolic sanctions’ the chain reaction resulted in the freezing of the EU-China investment agreement, a significant deterioration of EU-China relations, and a growing convergence of views between the US and the EU on the China question.

Belarus: which sanctions and for what?

EU leaders’ decisions to scrap earlier plans and institute a qualitative change in the types of sanctions against Belarus offers a good insight into how different kinds of sanctions are used for different purposes. Previously, the EU had intended to incrementally raise the pressure on Lukashenko’s regime after the contested election of August 2020 and the repression that followed by increasing the numbers of people on the sanctions list. Here, the aim was to support the opposition while weakening the regime. In that context, the EU was playing a  political game internal to Belarus. While such sanctions were unlikely to make the regime collapse, it was hoped to discourage individuals from siding with Lukashenko, internationally and domestically discredit the Belarusian government, and, in the longer term, push for the release of political prisoners. Here, it was also in the EU’s interest to minimise the impacts of sanctions on the general population, as retaining support for the EU and the EU-backed opposition is at the core of the strategy.

However, when Belarus hijacked the Athens-Vilnius flight to arrest Pratasevič, the EU leaders were faced with a new perspective on the ‘Belarusian problem’, and the discussion changed. Lukashenko’s move could not be seen as just another human rights violation—it was an aggressive foreign policy operation against the EU, the security and credibility of which they were obliged to defend. These objectives required a shift in the type of sanctions, and it reacted by moving towards financial and sectorial economic sanctions, in addition to scaling up the size of its individually-targeted sanctions and banning Belarusian airlines. In this scenario, where Belarus is characterised by its post-Soviet economy and massive public sector, hitting the regime’s economic interests without affecting the general population is really ‘mission impossible’. While the sanctions might damage popular support for the EU among (some) Belarusian citizens, they are meant to deter Lukashenko from ever again boarding civilian planes in the EU or carrying out any other aggressive actions towards EU members.

The centrality of sanctions in the nascent ‘geopolitical Union’

More globally, international sanctions position the EU as the defender of certain values and signal that it will not remain a complete bystander to political events happening on its borders. Let us not forget that a common EU foreign policy is not a given: if Member States do not agree on common external policies, the EU becomes a non-entity outside of its borders. Sanctions instead are a way for the EU to become a more coherent and capable ‘geopolitical actor’: they articulate a common position for Member States to follow and provide an external signal EU’s relevance. As such, EU sanctions can be seen as an instrument of European integration as much as European foreign policy.

With the increased use of sanctions, perceptions of the EU as an essential interlocutor on foreign policy issues have extended to Washington and other capitals.  As both the EU and the US became sanctions aficionados, the EU gained geopolitical relevance in the eyes of targets as well as partners, as explicitly recognised in the recent EU-US summit. A clear understanding of the design and objectives of EU sanctions sheds light on the EU’s role in the world, and contrasts poorly nuanced doxa that ‘the EU is not doing enough, internationally.’


Jan Lepeu is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute and a foreign policy analyst, specialising in international sanctions and EU foreign policy. He graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the College of Europe in Bruges. He also worked for various non-governmental and international organisations in the humanitarian and trade sectors. Jan is also member of foraus, the leading Swiss think tank on foreign policy.