The EU once again talks about sanctions, but do they make sense?

The future of the European Union‘s foreign policy depends on it, says EU foreign coordinator Joseph Borrell. He believes that sanctions should be imposed against Belarus, after alleged fraud in the presidential elections. Foreign Minister Bloc even says that he is โ€œeagerly impatientโ€ to introduce sanctions against Belarus to show that the Netherlands is behind the Belarusian opposition.

EU states hope to agree today on a list of sanctions. But what good is European sanctions to the Belarusian opposition? Are they making change in Belarus? Can they shake the position of Belarusian President Lukashenko? The past shows that this chance is very small.

โ€œ Recent sanctions against Russia, Venezuela and Syria have made little sense,โ€ says Professor Cedric Ryngaert, who specialized in sanctions. โ€œThe groups that supported the regimes there are still doing so.โ€

โ€œ It depends on what your goal is,โ€ says Bertjan Verbeek, Professor of International Relations at Radboud University. โ€œIf the goal is to change the regime, sanctions are usually not very effective.โ€


That was different once. The sanctions against South Africa until 1994 had the desired effect: the apartheid regime was overthrown. But that was a different type of measure. โ€œThose sanctions were widely supported within the UN,โ€ says Verbeek. โ€œThere was a lot of pressure from groups in all kinds of countries and companies also participated. That increased the pressure.โ€

But the sanctions we are talking about are quite different in nature. The EU wants at all costs to prevent the entire Belarusian population from being affected, as happened, for example, with trade sanctions against Iran. โ€œThere has been a debate for years about whether there is such a thing as ‘smart sanctions‘,โ€ says Verbeek. โ€œSanctions that do not affect the population, but the regime. An arms embargo, for example, can be very effective and that will not affect ordinary citizens.โ€

Such an arms embargo already exists against Belarus, but in order to hit the Lukashenko circle harder, it is now looking at the freezing of bank assets within the EU for the President’s confidants. Those people should also be denied access to the EU.

The problem is that Belarus is not very dependent on the European Union, says Ryngaert. โ€œWhat if those people don‘t have bank balances in the EU at all? Or have you never travelled to Europe? Belarusians are much more focused on Russia than on the EU and therefore sanctions will have less effect.โ€

International paria

In addition, measures against Belarus are not widely supported internationally. โ€œThat is the most important condition for making sanctions effective,โ€ says Ryngaert. โ€œSanctions under UN flag make you an international pariah. Penalties from one country give the possibility of diverting to other countries where the sanctions are not in force.โ€

Dutch MEPs, from left to right, are aware of the flaws of the drug and yet almost all of them are in favour of sanctions. โ€œIt is symbolically important to show that you do not accept these kinds of human rights violations,โ€ says Kati Piri (PvdA).

โ€œ Much more the EU cannot do,โ€ according to Peter van Dalen of the Christian Union. โ€œBrussels cannot use tanks or planes.โ€ Bart Groothuis (VVD): โ€œIf you want to conduct foreign policy, there must be sanctions. If you don’t, you‘re actually saying there’s no norm. With sanctions, you communicate the norm.โ€

Contouting Values

Ultimately, the domestic effect of sanctions is perhaps even more important than the effect in the country affected by it: you show your own people that you are pursuing a foreign policy and not letting everything happen.

โ€œ The European Union was founded as a community of values,โ€ says Professor Ryngaert. โ€œWith that, you are almost obliged to propagate those values. Belarus is a direct neighbour of the European Union, bordering Poland and Lithuania. If human rights are violated there, it is difficult to remain silent.โ€

In this respect, the European Union also has something to lose if sanctions are not implemented, says Bertjan Verbeek of Radboud University. โ€œIf you stand for certain values, you must try to make them come true. If we do not, we will suffer international reputation damage ourselves, especially to countries that do apply sanctions.โ€