How the EU decides and imposes sanctions | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.02.2021
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How the EU decides and imposes sanctions

Who does the European Union impose sanctions on and what are the criteria? What is the decision-making process? How are imposed sanctions terminated?

Heiko Maas wearing a face mask at an informal EU foreign ministers' meeting in Berlin

EU foreign ministers such as Germany's Heiko Maas (C.) play a central role in imposing sanctions

Sanctions are an important and frequently used tool in European Union foreign policy. At present, more than 40 sanctions regimes are in force — directed against states, organizations like the al-Qaida terrorist group, companies and individuals.

The list of sanctioned individuals currently runs to about 500 pages and is available to the public on the EU's websites. Sanctions are imposed for illegal annexation of territories and the destabilization of sovereign states; they are imposed against terrorists and for human rights violations and nuclear proliferation.

The EU can impose sanctions worldwide for human rights violations without their being bound to specific states or crises. The EU either imposes its own sanctions or implements punitive measures specified by the United Nations.


 The Council of the European Union, which is the representation of the 27 EU governments, decides on the imposition of punitive measures, and decides unanimously.

A standing committee prepares decisions on new sanctions, the extension of ongoing sanctions and the termination of punitive measures. The formal decision is made by the foreign ministers.

Sanctions take effect as soon as they are published in the EU's Official Journal.

EU top diplomat Josep Borrell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lawrow

The EU and Russia recently each imposed sanctions on the other


 The European Commission's Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs and the Council's Sanctions Committee pinpoint individuals, companies or associations to be sanctioned. The lists are drawn up with the help of the embassies of the EU member states in the countries concerned and that of intelligence services, or by using public sources and information from individuals affected, as in the case of the Russian regime critic Alexei Navalny.

The EU tries to target people concretely involved in specific cases: rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine, the intelligence officers presumed to be responsible for Navalny's poisoning, as well as close associates of North Korean party and state leader Kim Jong Un. They are denied entry into the EU, and their accounts and assets in the EU are frozen.


States and organizations are sanctioned, too. Arms embargoes have been imposed on countries including North Korea, Iran and Libya. Terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, the so-called Islamic State and cyber criminals from China or Russia, have had punitive measures taken against them. The list of sanctioned members of al-Qaida is the longest in the EU sanctions regime.

Member of al-Qaida with a submachine gun

Al-Qaida terrorists are frequent targets of EU sanctions

Various sanctions are also in place against Somalia, Mali, Congo, Zimbabwe and Sudan, as well as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey are on the sanctions list.

 The EU has also imposed sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy in connection with the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russian banks are meant to find it more difficult to access the EU financial market. The export of dual-use goods, which can also be used to manufacture military equipment, has been banned since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Specific spare parts for the energy sector are no longer supplied.

Kim Jong Un smiling

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does not seem intimidated by embargos


Persons or companies subject to sanctions receive mail from the EU. If the EU does not have an address for them, the bloc sees publication in the Official Journal as sufficient. Anyone affected by sanctions can write to the Council of the EU in Brussels asking for them to be lifted.

Legal action against sanctions before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg is another option, and sometimes, it's even successful. If the reason for a sanctions measure no longer applies, the EU foreign ministers can unanimously lift sanctions.

The European Commission is bound to routinely monitor how effective the targeted financial sanctions are and suggest any adjusting or tightening of the measures. The political impact of sanctions against regimes like those in North Korea, Syria or Russia is difficult to assess, which makes it controversial.

This article was adapted from German.


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