Can EU citizens like Roman Abramovich be sanctioned?

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In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain determined the expulsion of practicing Jews from the territories of Castille and Aragon. Following this decision, many Sephardic Jews took refuge in Portugal. Portuguese King D. Manuel I, who had initially enacted a law guaranteeing them protection, ordered from 1496 the expulsion of all Sephardic Jews who did not submit to Catholic baptism. Consequently, many Sephardic Jews were expelled from Portugal in the turn of the fifteenth century.

In 2015, the Portuguese government adopted Decree-Law No 30-A/2015 of 27 February allowing the exercise of the right to return of the descendants of Portuguese Jews of Sephardic origin, through the acquisition of Portuguese nationality. In 2021, on the basis of this regime, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich acquired Portuguese nationality. As EU treaties provide, every national of a Member State shall be an EU citizen, and so Mr. Abramovich became one.

Citizen Abramovich

With the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, some were surprised to learn that Mr. Abramovich was not subject to any sanction. Former Portuguese presidential contender Ana Gomes even suggested that the reason why Mr. Abramovich was not sanctioned was due to his EU citizenship, a by-product of his recently acquired Portuguese nationality. While sanctioning a national of a Member State may be politically more sensitive than sanctioning a national of a third country, is there, under EU law, any legal obstacle to doing so?

Starting from the enabling treaty provision, Article 215  of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), no distinction is made between natural persons on account of EU citizenship. This is reflected in Council Regulation (EU) No 269/2014 of 17 March 2014, the legal act on the basis of which restrictive measures were adopted in response to the invasion of Ukraine in that year. Indeed, this regulation expressly foresees in Article 17(c) the sanctioning of EU citizens. Thus, the sanctioning of EU citizens is not prohibited by the text of the relevant provisions of EU law, and in the context of the response to the invasion of Ukraine, it is even expressly foreseen.

Travel bans and EU citizenship

Are there, then, specific guarantees deriving from the status of EU citizenship that must be accounted for? Many types of restrictive measures can be adopted pursuant to Article 215 TFEU, ranging from the freezing of funds to travel bans. Some do not interfere with rights of EU citizenship, while other strike the core of this status. This is the case, for instance, of travel bans, whereby a natural person is denied entry into, or transit through, the territories of Member States.

Travel bans clash with the EU citizenship right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States. Article 21(1) TFEU provides that restrictions to this right are “laid down in the Treaties and by the measures adopted to give them effect.” Restrictive measures, like those adopted in response to the invasion of Ukraine, are adopted on the basis of Article 215 TFEU, following a Council decision adopted under Article 29 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU). This raises the question: are restrictive measures adopted on the basis of these two treaty provisions considered measures adopted to give effect to the Treaties for the purposes of Article 21(1) TFEU?

This question was addressed by the General Court of the EU (GC) in Mayaleh v Council. In this case, Adib Mayaleh, a Syrian national and naturalised French citizen who served as Governor of the Central Bank of Syria, sought the annulment of a number of provisions applying restrictive measures. In its judgment, the GC ruled that such restrictions were consistent with Article 21(1) TFEU, for decisions adopted on the basis of Article 29 TEU, “are clearly provisions adopted in application of the EU Treaty.”

Travel bans and Member State nationality

A different question is that of the possibility of restricting the entry of an EU citizen in the territory of that person’s Member State of nationality. In the case of Mr. Abramovich, for instance, Article 44(2) of Portugal’s constitution provides for the fundamental right of Portuguese nationals to return to Portuguese territory. This conflict between EU and national law explains why the Council usually provides for a carve-out to travel ban measures. These carve-outs provide that the restrictive measures adopted shall not oblige a Member State to refuse its own nationals entry into its territory. This was the case for Mr. Mayaleh, for example, in Article 27(2) of Council Decision 2013/255 of 31 May 2013. Mr. Abramovich would also benefit from an identical carve-out, found in Article 1(2) of Council Decision 2014/145/CFSP of 17 March 2014.

For the General Court of the EU, this type of carve-out recognises that the Member States “have exclusive competence as regards the application of the restrictions at issue to their own nationals” (Mayaleh v Council, 186). It is here the principle of conferral, whereby the EU shall act only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States, makes its appearance. Interestingly, in Mayaleh v Council, the GC failed to link this type of carve-out to the status of EU citizenship itself. Instead of considering whether a complete travel ban would be allowed under EU law, the GC removed, somewhat dubiously, the issue from the scope of EU law, framing it as an exclusive competence of Member States.

It is true that in the case-law of EU courts the exclusive competence of Member States to lay down the conditions for the acquisition and loss of Member State nationality is well established (see, for example, Micheletti). However, the issue in Mayaleh v. Council did not imply the loss of Member State nationality, but only the restriction of rights derived from that national status. This dissonance may be raised in the future.

Yes, it can be done, but…

In short, sanctioning EU citizens like Roman Abramovich is possible and has been done. Should Mayaleh v. Council remain good law, the exclusive competence of Member States as regards the application of restrictions to their own nationals must be respected, namely through the use of carve-outs. In the case of Mr. Abramovich, while a restrictive measure such as a travel ban could be lawfully imposed, under the principle of conferral his Portuguese nationality, rather than his EU citizenship, would still ensure him the right to enter Portugal and to travel from Portugal to a third country.


Miguel Mota Delgado is a PhD Researcher in the Law Department of the European University Institute. His doctoral research focusses on the intersection between EU constitutionalism and the competition policy of the EU.