Why European sanctions tend to be ineffective?

Author : Der Spiegel

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The times are turbulent now, reasons for new sanctions are constantly emerging
23:24, 24 September 2020

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Europe does not stand on ceremony: the EU has imposed sanctions against almost 30 states. The list contains countries with names for all letters of the Latin alphabet - from A to Z. Here we are talking about a variety of measures: restrictions on imports and exports, freezing of foreign assets, and an arms embargo.

But are these sanctions really effective? This question is one of the key ones on the political agenda today. It is employed by both German and European politicians. On Monday, the ministers of foreign affairs and trade, and on Thursday, the heads of state and government will gather for an extraordinary summit (it was postponed to October 1-2 in connection with the quarantine of the President of the European Council Charles Michel, - ed.). They will discuss the reaction to the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, the situation in Belarus and Libya, relations with China, as well as Turkey and the border dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The times are turbulent now, reasons for new sanctions are constantly emerging.

At first glance, such measures seem to be rather ineffective. Russia does not even think of abandoning the annexation of Crimea. The Islamic regime continues to rule in Iran, as does Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. All of these are countries against which Europe has imposed a long list of sanctions.

Related: Merkel’s govt does not exclude change of position on Nord Stream 2 due to Navalny’s case

If the goal of sanctions is to encourage individual governments to change policies, then it is rarely achieved. This applies not only to EU sanctions.

Pressure makes the regimes even tougher

According to the Global Sanctions Data Base, only a small fraction of the sanctions are being triggered. But whatever goals were announced when the penalties were introduced - strengthening democracy, destabilizing the regime, observing human rights, settling territorial conflicts - in the past decades, they often did not lead to anything.

German Minister of Economy Peter Altmeier recently said the same thing. As far as the possible termination of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is concerned, as a reaction to the attempt to poison Navalny in Russia, he is very skeptical. The prime ministers of Germany's eastern states are also strongly in favor of completing the project.

Indeed, it has long been known that outside pressure only leads to tougher regimes in countries targeted by sanctions. Although the daily life of the citizens of these countries is visibly deteriorating, they rally around their leadership. Government propaganda helps to brand these measures as the machinations of foreign economic aggressors.

Nevertheless, sanctions are being introduced more and more often. In the last fifteen years, in particular, restrictions on finance and the movement of people have increased. This is evidenced by the GSDB data. And, apparently, this trend "in view of the intense geopolitical confrontation" will continue, Gabriel Felbermayr, president of the Keel Institute for World Economy and one of the initiators of the GSDB, and his colleagues assure. This is despite the fact that it is completely unclear whether these measures will achieve their political goals and what economic consequences to expect.

So are the sanctions nonsense?

Related: 6 ways Germany could kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline

People want to see real deeds

Nominally, sanctions are intended to change the behavior of a country in a particular case. But in fact, they are often introduced for other reasons: sanctions are intended to send a certain signal in both domestic and foreign policy.

In domestic politics, sanctions are a means of confirming one's own values. It is not enough to castigate human rights violations or war crimes in fiercely worded resolutions. If words are not followed by concrete action, the government runs the risk of incurring criticism for not taking the issue seriously.

This is the reason for the rapid increase in the number of sanctions: the media presents conflicts to citizens, sometimes accompanying their messages with blood-curdling images. This heats up the emotional perception of events and, accordingly, the desire to do at least something, even if it is purely symbolic.

Economic sanctions provide an opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to do something through agreed measures. They are one of the instruments of foreign policy, more effective than the usual diplomatic notes of protest, but less escalatory than military action.

The EU is one of the economic regions that are particularly prone to sanctions. This is also explained by the fact that Europe hardly has any other foreign policy means of influence. Its military deterrent potential is modest. But thanks to economic power, a huge internal market, and the second most important currency in the world, the EU plays an equal footing with the United States and China and therefore can cause significant damage to many countries.

Related: Germany negotiates with the US to preserve Nord Stream 2

Outward signals are directed primarily at the country, which is the target of sanctions. Although Russia did not withdraw from Crimea after the seizure of its territory in 2014, the signal sent by the European sanctions was unambiguous: this will not go further. Without taking this measure, the Kremlin leadership might have decided on further territorial adventures.

And not only Russia heard this signal: changing borders in Europe should not become a common thing. Anyone who breaks this taboo should wait for sensitive countermeasures. If the EU had not imposed sanctions on Russia, the smoldering border conflicts in the Balkans, Moldova or the Baltics might have erupted again.

High principles and real opportunities

International relations are a fragile substance. Within the rule of law, there is a monopoly on violence, with the help of which it is possible to enforce the law. There is nothing comparable at the interstate level. This raises difficult questions:

- What are the actual goals pursued by international sanctions?

- Is it more about protectionism, that is, about protecting local companies from potential foreign competitors, than about achieving political goals? Are Western countries acting primarily out of just security interests in ousting Chinese network operator Huawei, or are they looking to support more expensive local players?

- Wouldn't the costs incurred by the countries that impose sanctions be so significant that they would rather abandon foreign economic measures that would be appropriate to enforce compliance with international law? For example, if the EU decides to impose sanctions on Turkey over a border dispute in the Mediterranean, would it risk triggering a new wave of mass migration to some EU countries? Could the EU shoot itself in the foot if Turkey is more likely to turn its face to such rival powers as Russia or China?

Here we have to weigh a whole range of problems. In case of doubt, real possibilities are given priority over lofty principles.

Related: German Bundestag could not vote for draft resolution on Nord Stream 2

When ideals collide with reality

In an ideal world, international law reigns supreme and is respected by all. First of all, large economies must submit to this system and feel obligated to impose joint sanctions against states that violate international law.

Unfortunately, the real world is far from this ideal. Often everything happens exactly the opposite. More recently, the United States imposed sanctions against the chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal in The Hague, because the tribunal is investigating American troops in Afghanistan.

But now, even when the West acts in solidarity, other superpowers, especially China, are emerging, ready to help the countries affected by sanctions and thereby weaken the effect of penalties.

This creates problems not only of a moral nature but also of purely political ones. Sanctions work most effectively if they are imposed with certainty. Then they are more intimidating. States that violate international law should know that they would not get it in vain. In this case, the real threat of sanctions replaces their real imposition. But for this purpose, the states that impose sanctions must themselves adhere to the established rules and be ready to bear the costs of the sanctions that fall on them.

In reality, the picture is rather blurred, as the example of Nord Stream 2 shows. Does Germany need to withdraw from the project?

Related: Why stopping Nord Stream 2 is beneficial for Poland

On the other side of Rapallo

A recent brief analysis by Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik concludes that direct losses from Germany's exit from Nord Stream 2 would be "marginal." Allegedly, the existing pipeline capacity to transport gas from Russia to the west will be sufficient in the future. General economic losses from the sanctions are declared acceptable, but for the companies participating in the project, the result will, of course, be completely different.

Nevertheless, the Science and Politics Foundation warns against withdrawing from the project, namely against the demonstrative effect of such a step, which will have a "seismic" character. In this case, Germany will take a fundamentally new path in everything related to sanctions. First, it is not about trade and not access to financial markets, but about the infrastructure project. In addition, neither the reason nor the purpose is clear: the project was launched in 2015, that is, after the annexation of Crimea. There have been attacks on dissidents before, but they have remained without consequences for Nord Stream 2. Or did the assassination attempt on Navalny create a fundamentally new situation?

On the other hand, leaving Nord Stream 2 will send a signal to Germany's European partners. Many of its neighbors, like the European Commission, have previously criticized the project as a special deal with an aggressive eastern neighbor, which on top of that undermines the general policy of containing Vladimir Putin.

Related: U.S. willing to prevent launch of Nord Stream 2

From this angle, Nord Stream 2 can be perceived as the Rappal Treaty of the 21st century, reminiscent of the German-Russian agreement of 1922.

If the German government closed the project, it could eliminate a fundamental intra-European conflict. Not burdened by the controversial pipeline, Germany could promote European integration in foreign and military policy, while citing the fact that it itself suffered losses for the sake of this integration.

Whatever the outcome of this business, in case of doubt, the preference is given to really existing possibilities, and not to lofty principles.

Henrik Müller

Read the original text at Der Spiegel

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