Events & News


Sanctions by the European Union: Do they “work”?

by Dr Clara Portela Assistant Professor of Political Science Singapore Management University

22 Oct 2010

LT 301, Level 3, Executive Centre, NTU@one-north campus, 11 Slim Barracks Rise, Singapore 138664

10.00am – 11.30am

Presenting research findings from her recently-published book “European Union Sanctions and Foreign Policy”, Dr Clara Portela undertook to determine the circumstances in which EU sanctions achieve or do not achieve their stated aims. As she noted, the question is warranted by charges that sanctions actually hurt the vulnerable man-on-the-street more than the regime of the targeted state. There has also been scepticism expressed about the efficacy of sanctions aside from the purpose of ‘political grand-standing’ on the part of its enforcers. More generally, while the EU has often been lauded for its ‘soft power’ in international relations, its coercive power remains to be probed.

Dr Portela defined sanctions as the “withdrawal[s] of a benefit that would otherwise be granted with the objective of compelling a change in the behaviour of the target”. Limiting her study to targetedsanctions imposed by the EU collectively, she identified four channels through which such measures were implemented: 1) the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP); 2) informal sanctions; 3) the suspension of agreements under article 96 of the Lomé/Cotonou Convention, pertaining to development aid for the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries; and 4) the withdrawal of General System of Preferences (GSP), with regards to trade.

A perennial problem faced in research on sanctions lies in establishing causality. In addressing this issue, Dr Portela cited Robert Pape’s three criteria (1997) that could be used to credit sanctions for success: 1) where the target state concedes to a significant part of the demands; 2) where sanctions are threatened or applied before the target changes its behaviour; and 3) where no more-credible explanation exists for the target’s change of behaviour.

Dr Portela also attempted to sketch a ‘traditional’ sanctions theory, which she critiqued and tested in the course of her study. It is constituted by two main strands: the first strand adopts a pessimistic approach as pioneered by Johan Galtung in 1967, which focused on the failure of sanctions to effect change on the Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia; the second strand holds that sanctions do sometimes succeed – one-third of the time to be exact, according to a landmark 1985 article by Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot entitled “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered”.

Her hypotheses regarding the likelihood for the success of sanctions were that it increases with:

1) the extent of disutility brought on by the sanctions;

2) the extent to which the stated aims endanger the permanence in power of the targeted leadership;

3) level of international isolation of the targeted regime;

4) responsiveness of the management of sanctions regime; and

5) the role played by the European Commission.

Dr Portela reported that the results of a qualitative comparative analysis of the EU sanctions record were inconclusive, pointing to no clear factors that would account for either the success or failure of their use. On the other hand, a qualitative investigation into individual cases revealed factors hitherto unaccounted for by research on sanctions.

In Belarus, the sanctions imposed on the Lukaschenko regime initially appeared to have the opposite effect of moving the country towards autocracy. The imposition of sanctions there might have acted as a rallying call for the regime to strengthen the national resolve. As sanctions were gradually lifted in 2008, Dr Portela posits that Belarussian concession was not so much a consequence of the general economic decline of Belarus, but more the precipitous result of the withdrawal of gas supplies and subsidies in 2007 by Russia. Also crucial was the European Commission’s commitment in reengaging Belarus through concerted effort.

Similarly in Uzbekistan, concessions made in the face of sanctions imposed after the 2005 Andijan massacre was not primarily motivated by economic considerations. Rather it was more the result of the ambition and strategy of individual EU member states, demonstrated through a flurry of high-level visits to the Central Asian state made to conduct negotiations.

One key conclusion Dr Portela drew from her research was that sanctions can work only by damaging the prestige of the target regime, even as economic harm remains central. The lifting of sanctions was typically brought about by sustained negotiation and agreed compromises rather than merely by the sanctions themselves. Nonetheless the traditional factors posited for the success of sanctions remain valid. In closing, she characterized the EU as a ‘reluctant sender of sanctions’ that is highly concerned with any negative humanitarian consequences.

In the ensuing question-and-answer session, a variety of issues relating to sanctions on the specific cases of Iran and Burma/ Myanmar were raised, in which the EU had played some part. Dr Portela emphasized that EU does not entertain drastic aims such as regime change when implementing sanctions, as this would be “incompatible with the EU’s philosophy”.