UK sanctions policy after Brexit: the question of future coordination

Brexit has created many uncertainties in the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Foreign and security policy is no exception. While neighbouring states usually align themselves with EU sanctions regimes, it is still unclear what the UK position will be in the coordination of sanctions policy.

The UK’s departure from the EU leaves us with many uncertainties, as it was expected. In the first round of negotiations, these included, inter alia, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons on the continent, the UK’s financial commitments to the EU and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, preparatory works have also started in elaborating future cooperation in foreign and security policy. A particular field of foreign policy, sanctions are also discussed by a number of experts. The European Union Committee of the House of Lords, for example, has held several evidence sessions with the aim to establish an ‘independent’ sanctions policy for the country. The committee has invited several experts to hear them about the advantages and disadvantages of being member of the EU vis-à-vis the imposition of sanctions against third states. Certainly, as experts have suggested, the UK needs to establish a new legal framework for sanctions policy. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill was introduced to the House of Lords on 18 October 2017. Its primary aim is to ensure full compliance with the UK’s international law obligations in the field of restrictive measures. However, cooperation between the EU and the UK in sanctions policy after Brexit raises many challenges.

Undoubtedly, the interest of the EU and the UK is to continue the cooperation in sanctions policy after Brexit. There is no reason to assume that the two actors will not seek to coordinate their actions in sanctions policy. First, both of them are interested in maintaining the effectiveness of current and future sanctions regimes. Effectiveness can only be achieved through coordination. The EU28 has not been only trying to adopt common actions in the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), they have always tried to persuade like-minded states to align their foreign policy with the EU. Second, Brexit will not likely to alter the principal security interests and threats facing the UK, a factor equally important in the harmonization of collective foreign policy actions. The UK Government has already issued a Future Partnership Paper, signalling its readiness to coordinate its foreign policy with the EU. It seeks to sustain close cooperation with the EU given that “the UK has a deep, historic belief in the same values that Europe stands for: peace, democracy, freedom and the rule of law, in out continent and beyond”.

Despite having common objectives and shared values, however, nobody is able to identify the basic features of future cooperation in sanctions policy. It remains to be seen whether the UK will be merely invited by the High Representative – a well-known practice calling neighbouring states for aligning their sanctions policy with the EU – or it will be assigned a more significant role, a scenario clearly more desirable by the UK. The former option assumes a ‘passive’ actor as the UK would solely be expected to adjust its sanctions policy according to the decision made by the EU27. The latter approach, in contrast, would perhaps take into account the UK’s role as a global agenda-setter in sanctions policy by being a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Certainly, the UK’s priority is to have a meaningful influence on EU foreign policy even if it loses its seat in the CFSP. However, the ‘passive actor approach’ cannot be excluded for the moment. Although it is more unlikely to happen, the option of being merely invited to follow and ‘obey’ EU policies might, at some point, also become reality. The chart below precisely seeks to show the current practice of third country alignment with EU sanctions policy (‘passive actor approach’).

  1. Chart: The alignment of third countries with EU sanctions regimes between May 2010 and July 2017

Important note: this graph will appear in a more detailed manner in an article written with my colleague, Balázs Horváthy. The article will be published in an edited volume at Routledge in 2018. Further data will be added in 2018 (Croatia*: data available until its accession)

This chart shows the ratio of alignment of neighbouring states with EU sanctions regimes between May 2010 and July 2017. The chart shows that candidate countries (blue) are likely to align their sanctions policy. In fact, they are expected to align their foreign policy as the acquis includes the CFSP, including declarations, decisions and statements. However, as the cases of Macedonia, Serbia and, more particularly, Turkey show, the candidate status cannot be regarded as an assurance of being aligned with the EU. EEA countries (green) closely follow the performance of the most enthusiastic candidate countries. Moreover, their willingness to cooperate with the EU shows less fluctuance than candidate countries. Eastern Partnership countries (red) can be considered as less enthusiastic allies in sanctions policy, however, Moldova has shown better performance than Serbia in the examined period. Azerbaijan is practically a non-existent partner in sanctions policy as it has aligned itself with the EU in 0,01% of the times.

If the UK will be merely invited by the High Representative, it will probably show a pattern similar to the EEA countries. This means that it can ‘cherry pick’ the elements it likes and act in accordance with its perceived national interest. However, with the ambition and determination the UK has shown in world politics, the loss of ability to influence EU sanctions regimes and being merely invited would be tantamount to a defeat in the area of sanctions policy for the UK.