23rd Sep 2023


Details emerge of first-ever EU sanctions on corruption

  • Protester with golden toilet brush in 2021, after dissident Alexei Navalny revealed details of Russian president Vladimir Putin's opulent private palace (Photo: Sergey Korneev)
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New EU sanctions against foreign kleptocrats should take into account the size of bribes taken and be decided by majority, instead of unanimity, details of the proposals say.

The measures are part of wider efforts to crack down on graft, including a new ethics body to oversee EU institutions, announced earlier this month.

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  • Disabled Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years jail, amid talks on potential EU sanctions (Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz)

The proposed new sanctions would impose asset-freezes and visa bans on people deemed guilty of "serious acts of corruption worldwide", according to a draft regulation dated 4 May and seen by EUobserver.

They would cover "acts of bribery" and "acts of embezzlement" of a scale that "seriously affect ... the objectives of the [EU's] common foreign and security policy".

The sanctions would take into account "the value of the bribe(s) or assets embezzled, misappropriated" as well as "the prominence of the public function held by the official(s) or other persons involved" in deciding who to strike.

It would also consider whether "such acts have been committed in a systematic manner or through complex schemes".

The move is aimed mostly at corrupt foreign regimes, especially ones hoovering up EU development aid, but would not exempt EU nationals — given that thousands of Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen have acquired EU passports in recent years.

But while those blacklisted would have their European assets frozen whatever passport they hold, the sanctions "shall not oblige a member state to refuse its own nationals entry into its territory", the proposal noted.

EU sanctions are normally imposed by unanimous decisions of all 27 capitals, creating scope for national vetoes.

But in an added novelty, the EU Commission said the anti-corruption sanctions should be decided by a majority vote.

"The [EU] Council, acting by qualified majority upon a proposal from a member state or from the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy ... shall establish and amend the list" of targeted people or entities, the commission proposed.

The new measures are currently being studied by EU states' legal experts, prior to initial talks in council working groups in the coming weeks.

"We'll see what member states think about that", one EU source said, referring to the audacity of the majority-vote idea.

"It still needs to be discussed to see if there's an appetite among member states to take this forward," an EU diplomat added.

"Some member states are afraid of public perception. Their thinking is: 'Who are we to act as a global police force, when we also have serious issues with corruption in some of our own countries?'," they added.

The EU already has three similar sanctions regimes in place — on people guilty of human-rights abuses, chemical-weapons abuses, and cyber attacks.

These are designed to hold to account bad actors who enjoy immunity in their home jurisdictions and to snap into place more quickly than traditional EU sanctions, which target rogue countries instead of individuals.

The Dutch originally pushed for the EU "global human rights sanctions regime", which is informally known in Brussels as the European Magnitsky Act, because it was inspired by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian dissident who died in jail some 15 years ago.

The EU Magnitsky Act act covers crimes such as genocide, slavery, and "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

But the fact it never covered corruption, the way the equivalent US Magnitsky Act does, was always seen as a weak point by campaigners.

"The EU has been out of step with the rest of the world for quite a long time," said Bill Browder, a British hedge-fund manager and human-rights activist, who was also Magnitsky's employer.

"Most human rights abuses are motivated by kleptocracy and state theft," he said.

"This [the new EU proposal] is a crucial step," he added.

But if the EU agrees to bolt on the anti-corruption regulation to its armoury, it remains to be seen if it has the courage to go after big fish using its new instruments.

Names so far

The European Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime was adopted three years ago and currently covers 35 individuals and 15 entities.

It includes four Russians linked to the jailing of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

It covers 17 other Russians linked to the Wagner mercenary group, the Ukraine war, and domestic repression.

"Ivan Ryabov is a police officer of Moscow Police Station," the EU said, for instance, while adding him to the list in March.

"He arbitrarily detained and tortured female anti-war protestors in March 2022. Victims report that he beat them, suffocated them with plastic bags and abused them physically and verbally for six hours," it added

It also includes four Chinese officials accused of persecuting the Uighur minority, in a move that angered China at the time.

But it doesn't name those Russians deemed guilty of orchestrating Magnitsky's death, despite the history of the sanctions.

And it remains to be seen if it will name any of the 28 Russians deemed responsible for sending Vladimir Kara-Murza, a disabled Russian dissident, to a penal colony for 25 years last month — amid initial talks on the Kara-Murza case by EU ambassadors in Brussels on Thursday (11 May).

"If [the new EU anti-corruption sanctions] they're anything like the weak implementation of the EU Magnitsky Act, it's going to take a lot of political pressure to make it work," Browder said.


The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

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