UK Sanction Policies after Brexit: A Strategic Perspective

BEN KIENZLE is a Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London

In recent months, the European Union Committee of the House of Lords has published its report on sanctions after Brexit (followed two months later by an official government response). The report highlights quite rightly that ‘the most effective sanctions regimes are designed and applied alongside international partners, to strengthen the signal to the target and deliver the maximum possible economic impact’. These ‘international partners’ include first and foremost the European Union and its member states, even after Brexit. But as I argue in my written evidence submitted to the House of Lords, in the long term it is crucial to put sanctions, both at the national and the EU level, into a broader strategic context. After all, sanctions are nothing more and nothing less than a tool in the foreign policy tool box of powerful nation states and major international organizations such as the EU or the United Nations. As such, sanctions form an essential part of a country’s or of an international organization’s strategy. More broadly speaking, strategy is often divided into three components, one of them being means or tools (this is were sanctions belong) and the other two being ends and ways. The key point I want to make in this brief blog post is that what really matters in terms of sanctions are the ‘ends’ and ‘ways’ for which they are a tool.

Over the last few decades, the UK’s foreign policy strategies have been very much embedded in her close relationship with the other member states of the European Union. This does not mean that the interests and foreign policies of the UK and the other EU member states are always in line. Quite to the contrary, there is always quite a lot of disagreement in the EU. Yet, it is important to recognize two important points: First, the EU has become a very important focal point for the UK’s foreign policy strategy. Most notably, the EU has been considered to be an important power multiplier for the UK in the world and an important source of its economic wealth, which in turn forms the UK’s power base. Second, while the UK and the other EU member states may disagree over foreign policies, they rarely act against each other. In the rare cases that they do – for example in the case of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq – it becomes a major issue that we easily remember.

So, now comes Brexit. Of course, legally speaking, the UK remains at the time of writing a full member of the EU, but strategically speaking, the UK – and the remaining EU member states for that matter – have to start thinking about their post-Brexit foreign policy orientation now. And the big strategic question is if UK foreign policy will remain embedded in EU policies as I have just described them or if the UK will pursue a new foreign policy strategy independent of the EU. Brexiteers argue, of course, that the UK has sufficient diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence capabilities to act independently in international affairs. This is one of the advantages they see in Brexit: to gain the freedom to act in the UK’s national interest. This kind of thinking is very much encapsulated in what Theresa May called in her Brexit speech in January 2017 ‘a truly Global Britain’.

Yet, so far we know fairly little about what this slogan ‘Global Britain’ actually entails in reality. The speeches by the Foreign Secretary, the foreign policies of the government or the activities of the FCO since the referendum do not really tell us if the UK will move – in strategic terms – into a new direction. Quite to the contrary, the UK seeks at present a close security partnership with the EU after Brexit, as indicated by Theresa May’s speech in Florence in September 2017 or in the government’s response to the House of Lords report on sanctions. But still, the possibility exists that the UK will develop new foreign policy ends and ways – and, in its most dramatic manifestation, ends and ways that are not compatible with the ends and ways of the EU and the remaining EU member states. And if this were to happen – and I am not saying it will – what we will see are major conflicts between the UK and the EU in matters of foreign policy. This leads me now back to the issue of sanctions. In such a scenario, we would end up with a situation where the EU imposes sanctions on country X, while the UK’s policies would likely undermine these sanctions. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this would create considerable headaches for companies that operate in both the UK and the EU.

So all in all, if UK foreign policy strategies, especially the ways and means, remain broadly embedded in EU policy – we can call this the ‘soft Brexit’ option – the means (in the context of this blog post mainly sanctions and export controls) will be hardly controversial. The UK and the EU will be able to find some sort of pragmatic arrangement to coordinate their sanction policies. We could think about a voice for the UK in the Brussels institutions that deal with sanctions, some sort of informal institutional arrangement or even a formal EU-UK sanctions committee. I am sure the legal experts can figure out the legal and procedural details. Although this would certainly make European sanctions even more complex than they already are, in terms of the bigger picture not a lot would change in comparison with the status quo. The problems only begin if the UK develops over the next few years a strategy of its own that is not compatible with EU policies. We might want to call this a truly ‘hard Brexit’. That is, the UK does not only leave the EU, the single market, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, etc., but acts in confrontation with the EU. And in such a case, even the most sophisticated coordination mechanisms that lawyers can come up with will not work in practice.

Image: Protesters wearing headbands with the word “help” and shouting slogans during their action “Impose sanctions – stop the violence” in front of the office of the Delegation of the EU to Ukraine, Photo: Yuriy Kirnichny, 20 January 2014, © European Union, via EC – Audiovisual Service.

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