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Editor’s blog: why is the EU imposing sanctions on more than 30 countries?

Something is not right with Europe’s sanctions regime. The headline figure is already enough to make you wonder: the European Union today imposes sanctions on more than 30 countries – that’s almost one in six countries in the world! writes Justin Stares.

The sheer number would suggest the sanctions regime is hardly effective. But to truly assess success you have to ask what Brussels is looking to achieve.

Are the latest Russia sanctions designed to punish Putin? To dissuade him from taking further action in Ukraine? Are they a warning to other so-called pariahs, or simply an expression of Europe’s moral indignation?

If sanctions are designed to alter behaviour then there is a danger they could backfire; let’s see what happens if Putin is pushed into a corner.

Have past economic sanctions changed the course of government policy? It’s an impossible question. Some say sanctions against Libya, Liberia and Unita in Angola helped increase pressure and remove a threat.

What about South Africa? Did sanctions help end apartheid? Or was that more the role of sporting bans and decisions by rock groups not to play?

Have sanctions against North Korea made any difference? Have sanctions brought the Iranian regime in Tehran to the brink, as some predicted? Or have they just fuelled inflation?

Nowadays, the EU and the United Nations focus on “targeted” or “smart” sanctions rather than blanket sanctions. The populace should in theory be shielded, while those closest to the undesirable regime suffer the full brunt.

While laudable, this policy is not without its undesirable side-effects. Pye Phyo Tay Za, who was 16 at the time, was prevented from attending university in Britain because his father, a businessman, was deemed too close to the repressive Myanmar regime. Making the son pay for the alleged sins of the father hardly flatters the EU.

Sanctions imposed by Brussels can also hit European industry just as hard, or harder, than the intended target. This was the case in Ivory Coast, where European shipowners complained they lost money when sanctions prevented them from calling at the nation’s ports. Ships that were not flying a European flag were not covered by the ban, and therefore simply moved in, taking Europe’s share of the market.

Targeted sanctions can encourage corruption as those on the lists of targeted individuals seek to bypass the law. This corruption, academic studies have shown, can endure when the sanctions are lifted.

To make matters worse, the EU is currently suffering from criticism regarding what lawyers euphemistically call “due process”. EU sanctions against Iran are in many cases simply illegal, the European Court of Justice has found. So-called evidence collected by the Council of Ministers has been shown to be well below European legal standards and has in many cases been thrown out by Luxembourg judges.

The Council, which represents the EU’s high-and-mighty Member States, has chosen to ignore the court’s rulings and re-file a new set of alleged evidence, much of which is no doubt as dodgy as the first set.

Brussels, and the EU, consider they hold the moral high ground. Brussels law-makers believe they have the right to impose sanctions on anyone they chose because Europeans are the most civilised people on earth.

That may just possibly have been true at given moments in history, but the more you examine the EU sanctions regime, the less convincing the argument seems today. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

For a complete list of the countries upon which the EU imposes sanctions, see the “European Sanctions” blog written by Maya Lester and Michael O’Kane.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares or on Tumblr here.


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