Why sanctions matter : interview with Dr. Clara PORTELA

14th March 2016 – Dr. Clara PORTELA, Assistant Professor at Singapore Management University

It has only been a few years that the public started noticing that the EU imposed sanctions. In reality, the organisation has a rich practice of foreign policy sanctions which started more than thirty years ago. They have often escaped public attention either because they sometimes consist on little more than visa bans, and they either accompany sanctions by the US or supplement measures imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

We talk about EU sanctions with Dr. Clara PORTELA, Assistant Professor at Singapore Management University, winner of the 2011 THESEUS Award for the Promising Research on European Integration. As a sanctions expert, she has been commissioned several reports for the European Parliament and participated in consultative processes on sanctions issues convened by United Nations, the European Union and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  

Moscow Sanctions Clara Portela

EAP : Why are sanctions important in European foreign policy?

CP : Sanctions are important in European foreign policy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they constitute the principal instrument employed by the EU in confronting security challenges. The development of a crisis management role by the EU in the early 2000s attracted a great deal of attention. Yet, when faced with security crises, the Council tends to resort to sanctions – take Ukraine or Syria as examples. Sanctions tend to be more consensual among member states than the deployment of crisis-management operations, and are regarded as better suited to address certain types of security crises, particularly at an early stage.


Secondly, the imposition of sanctions, and especially the ability to sustain them over time, contribute to the development of the organisation’s international identity. They allow the EU to present itself as a unitary actor on the world stage, and to position itself as a supporter of multilateralism, a resolute human rights advocate, and a close ally of the US. This is remarkable in view of the presence of at least some degree of resistance among member states, which sometimes resent the negative consequences of sanctions in terms of bilateral ties to the target or the losses suffered by some of their industries.

 EAP :Was the use of sanctions the key factor in the resolution of the Iranian case?

CP : The sanctions regime applied on Iran had two different strands: UN-agreed restrictions on the provision of nuclear technology and related services, and US measures targeting the Iranian economy, some of which were unilaterally adopted by some its allies. The impact of these sanctions was magnified by the adoption of part of these measures by the EU over the period 2010 to 2012.

Opinions are divided on the extent to which sanctions played a role in the resolution of the Iranian nuclear file. In reality, it is difficult to know for sure the extent to which the calculations of the Iranian leadership were affected by the economic pressure exerted by sanctions, and whether technical reasons compelled it to interrupt the nuclear programme. Historically, initiating (or pretending to initiate) a military nuclear programme has often proven advantageous for country leaders intent on exacting benefits from those powers interested in stemming proliferation.


In the case of Iran, the sanctions are likely to have played a significant role.  The widely reported economic impact of the unilateral measures was exceptionally severe for a sanctions regime which fell short from a comprehensive trade embargo. Notably, the candidate who emerged victorious from the 2013 Presidential elections had campaigned on the promise of getting sanctions lifted, and announced in January 2016 that, with sanctions lifted, Iran was about a to enter “a year of economic prosperity”.[1] While the UN sanctions regime was not the most important in terms of economic impact, the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the Iranian nuclear programme carried a stigma.

EAP : Is there any specificity in the case of EU sanctions and counter-sanctions vis-à-vis Russia?

CP : Several traits set the sanctions regime against Russia apart from the rest of EU sanctions practice.

They represent the first time that the EU has imposed sanctions against a major power, if we exclude the informal arms embargo applied on China since the repression of Tiananmen Square protests. Previous attempts to wield sanctions against Moscow were so timid that they could hardly be characterised as such.


The selection of sanctions imposed did not follow a standard formula, but were designed to maximise impact on specific individuals, entities and sectors in Russia while minimising the economic costs to the EU distributing them among several of its members. EU leaders requested the help of the Commission services to inform this choice.

Secondly, the monitoring of the sanctions on Russia is closer than with other sanctions packages: Both the effects of the measures on the Russian economy and on the economies of the member states are being monitored. Finally, the measures feature a comprehensive trade embargo on a sub-state entity, which is unique in EU sanctions policy: Crimea is economically isolated from the EU.

What is most remarkable about the sanctions against Russia is that the EU has been able to sustain them over almost two years. This was far from evident given that the EU has limited experience in imposing sanctions with a bearing on the economy as it routinely applies visa bans or weapons embargoes. The Russian counter-sanctions on perishables weakened the support for EU sanctions among some Mediterranean member states which were economically more vulnerable and politically most reluctant to antagonise Moscow. Still, notwithstanding reported tensions in the Council about the renewal of the measures, the sanctions package has survived to this day.

[1] The Daily Star (Lebanon), “Rouhani promises ‘year of prosperity’ for Iranians”, 11 January 2016

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