Blog AnalysisEU diplomacysanctions

European sanctions: are they useful? is it effective?

(B2) The question of the usefulness and effectiveness of sanctions imposed by the European Union against certain regimes, as well as their objective, comes up regularly. Here are some food for thought…

The effectiveness of sanctions depends on many factors including the strength and determination of the targeted power (© NGV / B2)
The effectiveness of sanctions depends on many factors including the strength and determination of the targeted power (© NGV / B2)

To properly understand the mechanics of sanctions, three mistakes should perhaps be avoided.

First error: Idealize sanctions, as a success formidable self-sufficient

Clinging to sanctions as the 'alpha and omega' of foreign policy is a mistake often made by certain officials but also by public opinion (including the media). It is the combination of several instruments – and their subtle dosage – that makes a policy successful. 'Sanctions' are thus only one side of this policy, with 'diplomacy' on the other, 'technical or financial aid' to the opposition or to the most 'democratic' parts of a regime, without forgetting the 'military instrument' which is designed not to be used, but must be present as a deterrent, and 'international cooperation'. Sanctions alone are not enough. They are not “ than an instrument » in the service of a policy, European officials often say. Well Named.

Second mistake: Despising sanctions that have no effect

These sanctions often have a certain at least dissuasive effect, on the one hand on the targeted country, so as not to push the 'cork' too far; on the other hand, on neighboring or non-targeted countries, to avoid being hit by sanctions in turn. For those who doubt the effect of sanctions, just look at the number of proceedings initiated before the EU General Court. They number in the dozens each year and have become one of the main sources of disputes. Even if some are politically motivated, their number alone proves the corrosive effect of sanctions. If they really had no effect, it is certain that they would not give rise to as many legal actions, especially from economic entities.

Third error: believing that the sanctions will have a quick effect

This temptation is very present on the “Russia-Ukraine” file in particular where certain countries are constantly pushing to increase the slider by half a point, as if this would radically change the situation. The effect of sanctions is slow. The “time” element is a crucial point. Apart from a few exceptions. And the instrument must be handled with care – hence the importance of a precise dosage as in chemicals – because it can achieve the opposite objective. To take a maritime picture, the sanctions are a bit like the salt and the tide of the ocean on the rocks, it takes time, but tirelessly, they reduce the smallest rock into sand... But on arrival, is it the desired result.

The invisible effects of the mechanics of sanctions

The objective sought by the sanctions is to obtain a change in the policy of third countries. But beyond this stated objective, the mechanism of sanctions fulfills other, less stated objectives.

Create an internal dynamic

The usefulness of sanctions is first and foremost for internal use… for the European Union. Implementing sanctions requires Europeans to agree on a series of concrete measures. This is always more difficult than agreeing on a diplomatic language of condemnation which, generally, garners agreement fairly quickly, apart from a little “quibble” on the level of condemnation. From the level of sanctions - individual or economic -, their importance, their speed, their intensity, we can perceive the degree of unity of Europeans and their determination.

To be one of the modes of expression of the European voice

The use of sanctions also has an external virtue: showing that the EU can speak with one voice, is capable of imposing bans or economic sanctions. He is today the best tracer today of the “stick” side of foreign policy; Europe does not have a military deterrent tool, nor even the capacity to have one, nor does it have a territorial defense objective.

…or even a dissuasive weapon

This can also have a certain dissuasive effect with regard to certain countries or in certain cases of international relations. With regard to certain countries, largely dependent on European assistance (technical, financial, political), the sanctions 'stick', even if not waved, is very present. This is particularly the case for the ACP (African Caribbean Pacific) sector which receives significant European aid. THE "soft-power” is there as effective as “Hard Power”, or rather it is the combination of the two.

Variable geometry efficiency

The real effectiveness of sanctions is very difficult to measure. And it depends on a number of elements which are sometimes elusive or evolving over time.

Factors for the effectiveness of sanctions

The effectiveness of this instrument depends largely both on elements specific to the measures taken (targeting, scope, duration, etc.), on its extent (political or economic sanctions), but also on elements of the international context (only European sanctions). or international, etc.), the economic context (the intensity of the country concerned's relations with the European Union, the country's insertion in the international economy and politics, its alternative capacities) and political context (its internal openness — democratic or no —, his determination and his external support…).

Syria. A certain failure

In Syria, Europe has taken maximum sanctions. This is almost the maximum we could take, since most economic relations (finance, oil, weapons) are interrupted. But these did not succeed in shaking the determination of the regime. The reason: 1° the sanctions are not international, 2° the country has alternatives, 3° the regime has made the repression of the opposition, the main axis of its policy, a question of survival, regardless the cost. Against the “scorched earth” policy, sanctions have little effect. But they nevertheless hinder his action.

Russia. An effect yet to be assessed

With regard to Russia, a more important country, the scope of the sanctions remains notable. It affects the economy: on the Russian side, the effect of sanctions on the current Russian economic weakening is estimated at around 1/3 (2/3 being due to the fall in the price of oil). It has an effect on economic leaders but also on Western investors (read about the Club: Russia. Europe is reluctant to quickly extend the sanctions. What if uncertainty was the best measure!). It is a factor of doubt today for any investor worthy of reason who is preparing to invest in Russia. From there to influencing Russian policy, there is a step that would undoubtedly be daring to take. Because we have not yet reached the heart of Russian power (Read: The best measure against Russia… Hit the gas).

Iran. A certain effect but in the long term

In a country like Iran, the context is different because the sanctions are, this time, international and major. But they didn't have an effect right away and they didn't act alone. It is thanks to a change of regime in Iran (which the sanctions have encouraged a little, is that the whole question?) and to negotiation that a solution is emerging. But it took time.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).