When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This old saying was often used to criticize the U.S. overreliance on military force in its security policy. A modified version was said to characterize the European Union’s foreign policy—when all you have are carrots, every problem looks like a rabbit. But the times of the EU as the “global payer” are over now. Instead, the EU has acquired its own hammer: sanctions.

EU foreign policy is overshadowed by the financial crisis and is currently not in great shape. But in times of serious budgetary constraints, sanctions seem to have become the EU’s new default response to international challenges, and their use has increased massively in recent years.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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Sanctions are a powerful tool for the EU, but they cannot be the union’s only tool. Turning the EU into a sanctions machine strays from the intention to build a union that is a well-rounded and strong international actor. The EU must take steps that will help it use sanctions more effectively, combining this instrument with its other tools and working closely with all actors that have a stake in crises.

The EU Discovers Sanctions

There is no question that sanctions constitute one of the most significant comparative advantages of the EU in international relations. Representing 27 countries and 500 million people, constituting the biggest economy and the greatest trading power in the world, the EU is well positioned to exert collective leverage around the globe.

In some respects this leverage exceeds even that of the United States. EU visa bans and asset freezes in particular—including blocking shopping trips to London and Paris for some of the global jet set—probably hurt the targeted elites more than equivalent measures adopted by Washington.

There are also strong incentives to favor a collective approach within the EU framework over individual sanctions. Restrictive measures taken by individual countries come with the awkward disadvantage that the business lost by the sanctioning country’s economic operators is usually picked up by companies from other countries. Collective action by the 27 at least avoids this effect for the other EU member states. Even if EU foreign policy remains relatively weak and member states frequently go their own way, they certainly do not want to be on their own when it comes to adopting sanctions.

Given these advantages, one might wonder why it has taken the EU so long to begin using these measures systematically. The union used sanctions very rarely in the 1980s, but the Balkan wars triggered more frequent and more systematic use of the instrument in the 1990s. Following the end of the Balkan crisis, the frequency of the use of sanctions fluctuated, but beginning in 2010, EU sanctioning activity really took off. From 2010 to 2011 the number of relevant decisions more than trebled, jumping from 22 to 69, most of them concerning measures against Libya, Iran, and Syria (see figure 1 for a tally of EU sanctions decisions).

Many of the decisions relate to the same countries, such as Iran, Libya, and Syria. But the number of countries subject to EU sanctions has also increased significantly, particularly since 2010. Altogether, there are now 28 countries under Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) sanctions, roughly 15 percent of the international community (see figure 2). One additional sanctions regime has been established to target terrorist organizations.

What is Behind the Boom?

The EU’s rather late discovery of the sanctions instrument probably has a lot to do with the evolution of the EU’s perception of itself as an international actor. For a long time many member states preferred that the EU stayed outside the traditional great-power game altogether. The EU should concentrate on positive rather than negative measures, they argued; it should use soft rather than hard power and should seek solutions to international problems through multilateral regimes rather than through bilateral pressure.

Even after the use of sanctions became more frequent in the 1990s, a considerable number of member states, many of them from Southern and Central Europe, remained reluctant and prevented a more systematic resort to this instrument. There was particular resistance to the adoption of sanctions when they were not based on a resolution of the UN Security Council.

Three factors in particular prompted the EU to overcome these constraints and to massively expand the use of sanctions.

First, the way the concept of targeted sanctioning, which goes after those directly responsible for offenses and not the population as a whole, has evolved over recent years has by itself contributed to much more frequent use of the instrument. It is easy to enter into such a policy, but once it is under way, it is often quite difficult to find an exit.

Sanctioning usually begins with travel restrictions on regime representatives and the freezing of their assets, so the threshold for taking these decisions is quite low. There are virtually no costs involved for the state or organization doing the sanctioning. And at least initially, there are no negative consequences on the population of the targeted state, so there are few reasons for restraint.

However, once a policy of targeted sanctions has been set in motion it tends to be self-perpetuating. If the initial round of sanctions does not lead to the desired change in behavior of the targeted country, the temptation is to pile more sanctions on the existing ones, as not doing so would give the impression of acquiescing to the status quo. So, once the EU got started, it was hard to break the cycle.

Second, the current financial crisis has favored the increased use of sanctions. The crisis has weakened the EU’s foreign policy by reducing confidence and soft power and by imposing severe resource constraints. Major diplomatic initiatives, new civilian or military crisis management operations, or significant new assistance programs are difficult to undertake under these circumstances.

Sanctions are not major drains on budgets and not very demanding in terms of manpower or political energy. In times of adversity, they are one of the few things the EU can still do. So when a new international challenge emerges and public expectations require a response from the EU, the default reaction will normally be the adoption of sanctions.

Third, political developments, particularly international diplomatic efforts regarding Iran’s nuclear program, also played a major role in triggering the sanctions boom. In 2009 the Obama administration set in motion a massive diplomatic mobilization to put together a tough package of sanctions against the Iranian regime in an attempt to compel it to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. While this initiative was based on a UN Security Council resolution, the measures proposed for the EU to implement the policy went well beyond it. Strong pressure from the United States brought even the most reluctant EU member states on board for the most ambitious sanctions regimes ever adopted, which in the meantime has been further tightened.

By uniting the EU behind this policy, the Iran experience helped to mitigate the traditional philosophical divisions between pro-sanctions and skeptical member states. It acted as an ice-breaker for the EU and lowered the resistance to further sanctions decisions.

The Iran experience thus paved the way for the EU’s active use of the sanctions instrument in the context of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt, EU sanctions mainly aimed at preventing the old leaders’ access to the assets held in European banks helped topple ancien régimes. In the case of Libya, the EU’s arms embargo, asset freeze, and flight ban based on UN Security Council resolutions were quickly followed by a military operation by NATO that led to the overthrow of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In Syria, the EU along with other international actors, including the United States, struggled to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the escalating civil war in the country. As a result, sanctions became the central element of the EU’s response. Within a relatively short time—so far nineteen rounds of sanctions decisions—a comprehensive set of measures was adopted, which included an arms embargo, visa bans, and asset freezes; measures against the Syrian energy sector; and other financial and trade restrictions.

The Effectiveness of the EU’s Sanctions Policy

The EU’s use of sanctions policy in the last three years certainly went well beyond received ideas of EU foreign policy as mainly declaratory in character and averse to the use of hard power. Particularly, the sanctions regimes against Iran and Syria have real teeth and a significant impact on the economy of these countries. The time and effort invested in building such elaborate regimes also indicate that this is an area where the EU is seriously trying to harness its enormous economic potential and bring it to bear on international developments.

However, the bigger question is whether the policy is working. Assessing the effectiveness of EU sanctions in concrete terms can only be done on a case-by-case basis and is a monumental task in and of itself. And as it is difficult to control for the influence of other factors, assessing the contributions of sanctions to obtaining a particular outcome is inherently problematic.

For example, is Myanmar’s entry into the process of democratic transition a vindication of the sanctions regime or could it be the consequence of unrelated factors like a need to react against China’s hegemonic pressure or internal political processes? International sanctions have undoubtedly played a role in persuading Tehran to return to the negotiation table, but they have not (yet) led to a change in Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, this may still happen. But when is the right time to assess the effectiveness of a sanctions regime?

Despite these difficulties, there exists a considerable body of academic literature that attempts to gauge the effectiveness of sanctions. Altogether, the literature comes to a fairly sobering assessment both regarding sanctions in general and EU sanctions in particular. While there are clearly cases where sanctions have been successful in modifying the behavior of the target state, there are many more instances in which no such effect can be detected.

If the EU makes such extensive use of an instrument whose track record is so uncertain, this seems to indicate that the motivation is often different from the stated wish to see a changed behavior of the target state. This appears to be particularly the case when it comes to violations of human rights and the repression of democratic movements.

Widespread anger among European publics sometimes necessitates a response that goes beyond declarations and diplomatic demarches. In such cases, the EU at times resorts to targeted sanctions in order to signal moral indignation even though the likelihood of actually changing the behavior of the respective regime might be quite small.

While such a symbolic use of sanctions obviously satisfies a political need, it can also be quite counterproductive. If sanctions regularly do not have the desired results, they signal not just moral condemnation but also the impotence of the organization doing the sanctioning and end up undermining the authority and credibility of the EU.

Moreover, the experience of recent years has revealed that the concept of targeted sanctions has significant weaknesses. The idea that sanctions should affect those directly responsible for the offensive behavior and not the population at large is hugely attractive. However, in practice, measures such as visa bans or asset freezes probably embarrass and inconvenience the targeted persons but rarely impel them to mend their ways, particularly if their hold on power would be questioned if they do so.

If the international community then does not follow up of the initial round of measures with new efforts, it appears weak and ineffectual. If it adds further economic sanctions, the pressure on the regime will increase, but the targeting will be more diffuse as entire sectors of the economy and increasing parts of the population are affected. After a certain point, the original claim that the sanctions are meant to hurt the regime and not the population will be difficult to uphold.

Additionally, the economic calculation changes in the course of a targeted sanctions regime. What at the initial stages looks virtually cost free can become very expensive to the European economy once significant trade and financial measures are included.

Past experience has shown that sanctions are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive approach that brings various instruments together. The international community’s handling of the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 can serve as a positive example. Diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions, and military action came together to bring the democratically elected president, Alassane Ouattara, to power within a few weeks. In the case of Iran too, the “sanctions track” is combined with the “dialogue track,” which aims at placing negotiated limitations on the Iranian nuclear program. This contrasts sharply with the crisis in Syria where the EU failed to develop a political strategy and relied for many months almost exclusively on sanctions while the bloodshed just continued to worsen.

One cannot ignore certain weaknesses in the way the EU currently handles sanctions regimes. Although the use of sanctions has multiplied, the same handful of officials is working on this topic in the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service, and the European Commission. As there is insufficient capacity to evaluate the application of the sanctions regimes, the assessment of the measures’ impact is mostly left to the diplomatic missions on the ground and to the intelligence services of a few member states. Particularly, with regard to the more complex and far-reaching regimes, such as those against Iran and Syria, a more regular and systematic evaluation of the consequences would be called for.

As the sanctions decisions proliferate, there has also been a significant increase in the number of legal challenges by persons or companies claiming to be wrongfully targeted. There are currently more than 180 cases pending, and the EU has already lost a number of others. Much of the information leading to the selection of targets is based on intelligence and cannot be shared, which make it difficult for the courts to evaluate the merits of a case. The EU therefore needs to upgrade procedures in order to minimize the risk of making mistakes in selecting the targets and to meet the requirements of a proper judicial review.

The Future of Sanctions Policy

The EU is still a relatively weak international actor. If current trends continue, it risks turning itself into a “sanctions machine.” And while it uses its energy and resources to build complex sanctions regimes, it will leave diplomatic initiatives and political crisis management to others, including at times to some of its own member states. The idea of the EU as a toolbox rather than as an international actor might appeal to some, but it certainly does not do justice to the objectives of the EU treaty and the ambitions of many member states.

Current EU sanctions practice also corresponds to a global power constellation that is rapidly fading away. Almost all sanctions regimes follow a pattern of the “West”—meaning the EU and the United States, and sometimes including other like-minded Western states—against a “rogue state.” There is hardly a case in which the EU and the United States have not adopted broadly similar sets of sanctions. While these countries collectively still muster enormous power, their overall weight on the global scales is declining as the world moves toward a multipolar system.

It is therefore unlikely that the EU sanctions boom of the past three years will continue at its current pace for much longer. Persisting on the current course would result in increasingly ineffectual sanctions regimes that alienate a growing number of international partners.

Sanctions will, of course, continue to have an important place in the EU’s toolbox. The comparative advantage the EU enjoys in this area is an asset to be treasured and made use of. However, as it becomes necessary to build broader alliances with a wider range of actors to solve regional crises, sanctions can no longer serve as ersatz diplomacy. On the contrary, their employment itself will increasingly require a lot of skillful diplomacy. Moreover, in the future sanctions should be deployed not as the default response to international challenges but as part of a comprehensive approach that brings various instruments together in a well-coordinated manner.

A successful European foreign policy requires the right balance between the various instruments at the EU’s disposal. Now that the sanctions muscle is highly developed, there is a lot of catching-up to do in developing strategic brainpower, speeding up diplomatic legwork, and bringing the toolbox of civilian and military crisis management up to snuff.