While the EU could divide in reaction to new U.S. sanctions on Russia, it should now do its best to not let consensus crumble. The EU’s policy towards Russia has so far not coerced the Kremlin into facilitating an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But it has unified European actors and served as an example of the EU’s strength in unity and defence of liberal values.
A Comment by Elyssa Shea and Niklas Kossow
A Failing Foreign Policy?
European business circles and EU policy-makers have been greatly distressed by the U.S. Congress’ recent announcement that it has passed a bill to impose new sanctions on Russia. The decision has the potential to divide the U.S. and EU’s approach to Russia due to the negative ramifications sanctions may have on European businesses. In comparison to the controversy that the U.S.’s approach to Russia is currently causing, the EU’s June 2017 decision to prolong sanctions should be viewed in a much more favorable light. With support from its Western allies and within the EU, the decision by the European Council to continue sanctioning Russia proved to be a successful case of EU foreign policy-making.
The current degree of sanctions has been in place since July 2014, when EU heads of state agreed to expand the remit of sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and involvement in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. This economic ban is tied to the implementation of the Minsk agreements between Russia, Ukraine and the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. In order for sanctions to be rolled back, Russia would need to, for one, encourage the separatists to negotiate a ceasefire. The U.S. also introduced sanctions on Russia in reaction to the conflict, and thus the transatlantic allies have reinforced each other’s approach until recently. But now the U.S. is going forward unilaterally with further sanctions as punishment for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Thus far the sanctions have failed to pressure Russia into bringing about an end to the Ukraine conflict, calling into question the efficacy of this foreign policy instrument. However critics should not rush to conclusions and declare that the EU’s foreign policy towards Russia has failed. First of all, it should be noted that since the imposition of sanctions, the conflict has not further intensified. Despite increasing casualties on both sides, Ukraine has not lost further ground. Secondly, the EU’s approach has so far showed a unified front against Russia with its main transatlantic ally. And most importantly, the decision to apply sanctions has served as a strong signal of something repeatedly questioned during the last few years: European unity.
Overcoming Domestic Obstacles
The EU’s ability to levy a unified policy against Russia is itself a measure of success. It displays Europe’s ability to defend its most fundamental values, such as the rule of law. To many observers, Russia has been seeking a reset of the Eurasian continent’s security order, aiming to supplant the ‘values-driven, rules-based international system’. Against this backdrop, the EU’s resolution to punish Russia for breaching Ukraine’s national sovereignty demonstrated that the EU is determined to defend its rules-based system. The EU has also shown support for Ukraine by backing domestic reforms and eventually signing the Association Agreement. Given the controversial debate surrounding the sanctions against Russia, uniting the EU-28 on this policy ultimately remains the far greater achievement.
Russia is said to be using a strategy of disaggregation in order to exploit already existing fault lines and manipulate events in its favour. One example is the so-called energy wars over the last few years, as Russia struck deals with German, Italian and French energy companies in order to leverage Poland and Ukraine. In doing so, Russia threatened any sense of European unity on energy policy. Different national standpoints also came into play when originally deciding whether to sanction Russia over Ukraine back in 2014. The United Kingdom raised concerns about the potential impact of financial sanctions on the City of London. For France, sanctions would bring into question the country’s 1.2 billion Euro contract with Russia for two Mistral helicopter carriers. The powerful German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations posed a significant hurdle to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s championing of the policy. Member state politics have also been at play since 2014: Hungary and Italy brought the matter of sanctions renewal under extensive review in 2016, making clear that the decision would not be automatic.
But ultimately, all of these domestic obstacles were overcome in the name of Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence’ (European Council Conclusions 16 July 2014). The EU has managed to unite on a common policy and stood behind it at each successive vote. While the 2016 extension of sanctions was rather contentious due to pressure that Russian counter-sanctions has put on EU member state economies, this year there was relatively smooth sailing leading up to the vote. And by responding with one voice in its penalties over the Ukraine crisis, the EU has been able to shatter Russia’s narrative that Europe is divided. The current unilateral extension of sanctions by their American allies, is thus rightfully distressing to EU policy-makers. They would be wise to not let the U.S.’s new policy throw them out of sync.
Europe in Union: a Rare Instance
The sanctions on Russia stand out as an example of successful policy implementation, especially when compared to other recent events. Take the migrant crisis: while many Southern European countries struggle, Hungary and Slovakia continue to be vocal opponents of a centralized policy, refusing to take part in an EU quota plan that would distribute 160,000 migrants across the EU. Their opposition has left many migrants stranded in Italy and Greece. An underwhelming percentage of migrants have been transferred elsewhere as part of the distribution scheme. While migration policy is not explicitly an example of foreign policy, it sends a message to the outside world when the EU cannot create cohesive internal policies. The EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine stand apart from this. Yes, there were signs of discord as not all members states initially agreed. But in the end, despite diverging opinions, they all backed the policy in 2014 and have continued to do so at every meeting for renewal since.
Despite the negative consequences that EU sanctions have brought for the Russian economy, Russia has still not taken responsibility for its role in the crisis at its borders or illegal annexation of territory. The Crimean Peninsula remains under Russian occupation and fighting in eastern Ukraine continues, with death tolls rising. But policy success in this case should not purely be measured by the outcome of the sanctions, but on the ability to levy them on a partner that has sought to divide EU member states on so many other occasions. Therefore, this policy successfully exhibits unity as a measure of the EU’s strength.
The ability to speak with one voice, in defence of liberal values, is the ultimate test for the EU as an actor in foreign policy. Such consensus between EU member states seems way too rare these days. The next challenge, however, seems to be to unite not only the EU, but to also keep the transatlantic alliance with the U.S. intact. European reactions to the U.S. Congress’ decision to introduce further sanctions on Russia revealed how difficult it can be to agree on a unified approach. But the discord amongst allies caused by this move in U.S. foreign policy only further highlights the EU’s successful handling of policy-making towards Russia so far. Hope remains that the initiative by U.S. lawmakers will not put this policy in question.
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Elyssa is a research associate at the Freie Universität Berlin on a project studying the relationship between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries. She completed her master’s degree in EU politics at the London School of Economics and her bachelor’s at the University of Michigan. She has been a member of Polis180 since fall 2016, focusing primarily on EU foreign and defence policy.
Niklas is a research associate and PhD candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. He researches the use of internet and communications technology in grassroots anti-corruption movements, focussing on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. As a member of Polis180 Niklas co-leads the programme area on East-West relations.