What would Brexit mean for EU sanctions policy?

Europe’s weapon of choice – economic sanctions – will be considerably weakened should Brexit become reality.

Targeted economic sanctions are frequently the most appealing or viable policy option that lie between war and words.  Their use by the EU has proliferated threefold over the past three decades and looks set to continue increasing. 

The EU, along with Western and some emerging power allies, faces domestic and budgetary pressures to avoid military involvement in foreign disputes, while continuing to be expected to curb the growth of global unrest, cross-border security challenges and perceived breaches of international norms. 

No other European power arguably has played such an instrumental role in the use of EU sanctions as the UK

Decided through the rule of unanimity where individual member states have the right to a formal veto, EU sanctions have been used for a variety of aims which have included nuclear non-proliferation, conflict management, counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights promotion, post-conflict management and, most recently, in response to the violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity in Ukraine.

No other European power arguably has played such an instrumental role in the use of EU sanctions as the UK, which has acted as a pro-active and committed advocate of their use in recent years against countries such as Russia, Syria, North Korea and Iran.

Sanctions employed by the EU are one of three kinds.  The first are those agreed at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which all member states are required to adopt. These types of EU sanctions – essentially focused on sub-Saharan African targets – are unlikely to change in the event of Brexit. 

However, the second type of EU sanctions, those that supplement UNSC sanctions (as with Iran, North Korea or Libya), and the third, those EU sanctions put in place in the absence of UN sanctions (on, for example, Syria, Russia or Myanmar) – especially those vetoed at the UNSC by Russia or China – are more likely to be affected. For both of these types, consensus is required among all EU member states and unanimity has often depended on strong support from the UK. 

This is particularly likely in cases involving competing political, commercial or ideological links to the targeted country, where consensus is more difficult to achieve and uphold. Current EU sanctions against Russia are but one example of a highly politicised domain counting on fragile, and seemingly waning, consensus among member states.

Indeed, no other country has opposed autonomous EU sanctions quite as forcefully as Russia. A British departure from the EU carries the real risk of loss of leverage for the UK (and its European partners) over an increasingly recalcitrant and unpredictable Kremlin.

Impact of Brexit on UK influence through sanctions

“Out campaigners” could rightly argue that a shift away from EU sanctions policy would have its benefits. The UK outside the EU would still impose UNSC sanctions and in some cases would employ further supplementary measures. There are weaknesses in current EU sanctions policy that require improvement, and the need for consensus sometimes leads to sanctions being watered down as in the case of Myanmar.

Despite these limitations, however, there are a number of areas where working within the EU leads to a more effective sanctions policy and brings benefits to the UK.  

The EU – as largest trade bloc in the world, biggest global aid donor and notable international investor – adds weight to the UK’s foreign and security policy efforts

First, sanctions tend to be most successful where strong political engagement exists involving a range of countries; discouraging evasion or trade diversion. While the UK could continue to collaborate with the EU on sanctions after Brexit, the process could become costlier and complicated. The recent tentative success in Iran’s nuclear talks with the E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US) serve as an example of recent unprecedented unity in EU (and allied) sanctions policy.

Second, the UK and EU increase the symbolic and material impact of their sanctions by working together within the EU framework. The EU – as the largest trade bloc in the world, biggest global aid donor and notable international investor – adds weight to the UK’s foreign and security policy efforts.  In turn, the UK – as home to the City of London, the fifth largest economy in the world and significant soft power actor – lends the EU extra leverage. This is particularly the case regarding financial sanctions or embargos on particular commodities, where impacts are likely to be greater if the EU and UK combine efforts and cease areas of trade with a target.

Third, sanctions never operate in isolation and their success depends in part on the way in which they are combined with areas such as dialogue, peace-keeping, mediation, trade, conflict prevention and crisis management.  Working within the EU presents a broader range of available tools as compared to the UK operating alone.

Fourth, studies suggest that psychological aspects can play an important role in sanctions’ success, including the speed and unity with which sanctions are agreed. The fragmentation and political contagion across Europe linked to Brexit will add strain to a beleaguered EU struggling under a series of existential challenges including the refugee crisis, rising instability in the Middle East and North Africa, ongoing fragility of the Eurozone and terrorism. 

In such a scenario, Brexit is likely to impede decision-making on sanctions in a coherent, timely and decisive manner through weakened unanimity among EU member states.

Finally, if the UK were to leave the EU, not only would it lose the ability to apply sanctions with the same breadth and weight, it would also lose much of its say regarding EU sanctions policy.  The UK would lose access to key forums through which to push for ongoing momentum and accord among fellow EU member states.  

A Brexit-weakened EU sanctions policy is likely to intensify the need to employ other, more expensive, controversial or complicated forms of diplomacy, coercion or pressure. It is also likely strengthen Russia’s hand against Europe, as it benefits from a fragmented Europe with a weaker toolbox of security instruments at its disposal.

Dr Erica Moret is Senior Researcher, Programme for the Study of International Governance, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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