Saturday

21st May 2022

Opinion

Has the EU gone far enough on sanctions?

  • The Berlaymont lit up the colours of the Ukraine flag. 'But if some governments are not ready to support the Union's response to this crisis, there will need to be political and economic consequences for those that block progress' (Photo: EU Commission)
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There is no doubt about the illegality of the war of aggression Russia is waging against Ukraine, nor about the condemnation of these actions by democracies across the globe, including in the European Union.

European leaders expressed their resolve to react forcefully and decisively, including with economic sanctions, to send a strong signal to Moscow. And by late Friday afternoon, there were strong - but unconfirmed - indications that Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, would face personal sanctions from the EU.

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While few held illusions that the military realities president Putin has created with his invasion could be reversed any time soon, it was also clear that there is an urgent need for Europe to stand up to geopolitical bullies.

After all, if the EU fails to deal with the challenge posed by the invasion, it is not only European institutions that are on the line, it is ultimately about the survival of independent liberal democracies in Europe.

This was the backdrop to the emergency meeting of the European Council on Thursday. So did the Union and its members react swiftly and decisively, sending strong signals to Moscow?

There was certainly a strong rhetoric, backed up by economic sanctions that went further than what the EU had done previously.

The Union was also able to act unanimously despite some grumblings in the run-up to the meeting. There seems to have been a shift in the approach of Germany, with the effective demise of Nord Stream 2, a step long demanded to show Russia that it couldn't divide Europe through the power of its gas.

Baby steps

While these are steps in the right direction, they do not go far enough. On economic sanctions, EU leaders couldn't agree on cutting off Russia from SWIFT, the global interbank payments system.

While the EU has introduced painful economic sanctions, so far there is no decoupling of the EU from Russian gas, unless Putin decides unilaterally to stop deliveries. It seems that European leaders were not be willing to take the pain of notching the sanctions up further, not least since some feared that populations at home would not understand such actions.

But this is how sanctions work: to be credible, those who put these measures in place must be willing to accept that this will have a negative effect on both sides. In order to make a difference, EU countries will have to be ready to bear the costs.

The broader and stronger sanctions will be, the greater the effects on Moscow.

Europe must be willing to take the pain and European leaders must engage with their citizens on the basic truth: it has to be done, there is no alternative. And those member states and particularly vulnerable segments of our societies that will suffer a high economic price must be financially supported.

This course of action will be even more painful than it should have been because the EU did not react sufficiently to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 when the Union and its members did not draw the right lessons from this challenge to Europe's regional order.

This time must be different, not least because we now have to recognise that president Putin will not stop with Ukraine. He will continue to test the resolve of liberal democracy and continue his longstanding dirty conflict, interfering in European democracy in numerous ways.

This is why the EU must actually go further than economic sanctions and start putting in place contingencies, and prepare for the long term consequences that will inevitably follow.

This includes a comprehensive package of commitments and measures, including on cybersecurity, to defend our democracies more robustly in cyberspace.

There is a need for a decisive shift in how we approach defence and security in the EU, including the painful discussions on how to tackle its fragmented defence market and the need to increase defence and security spending.

We have to prepare for the weaponisation of refugees, with a strong possibility that Putin will aggravate the situation further.

We have to deal with the economic impact of the crisis, particularly on the energy markets, putting in place a comprehensive, trans-European package to cushion the impact of energy price increases and market volatility.

And we have to draw geopolitical and geo-economic conclusions, particularly on the need for EU strategic autonomy. All this does not mean undermining the transatlantic alliance but on the contrary demands more cooperation and coordination with Washington.

In this the Union must act in unity and avoid fragmentation. But the overall decisive response must not be blocked by reluctant member state. The strong democracies of Europe must meet their responsibilities and, in some areas, this might necessitate the use of enhanced cooperation or intergovernmental mechanisms.

If some governments are not ready to support the Union's response to this crisis, there will need to be political and economic consequences for those that block progress.

Age of perma-crisis

Of course, the EU could not agree and implement all of this at the overnight meeting. But there could have been strong signals and commitments of the direction of travel. It is not too late so the EU must continue to come together and ratchet up the pressure. More will have to be done in future. The EU and its members must counter this grave threat.

In this age of perma-crisis, what is happening in the East will have interlinked repercussions across policy areas, in many cases aggravating the challenges already present.

The EU will have to deal with all these crises (and future crises) simultaneously. This will become an existential test European democracies are facing if we do not act decisively and collectively.

Author bio

Fabian Zuleeg is chief executive and chief economist at the European Policy Centre.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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