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The future of sanctions

Published Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The UK has a new legislative framework for imposing sanctions post-Brexit. What effect would the UK's departure from the EU have on sanctions policy here and in the EU? What is the broader international outlook?

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UK sanctions after Brexit

With a new legal basis on the statute books in the form of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, the UK enters a new era in sanctions policy, or at least it will when the powers to create sanctions regulations come into force, something that will happen when the Government decides.

As an EU member, sanctions were imposed using the powers in the European Communities Act 1972. After the Brexit referendum and the decision to repeal the 1972 Act, it was clear that new powers would needed; the 2018 Act provides for creating sanctions regimes independently of the European Union, although the sanctions powers are not yet in force, something that will happen by EU exit day.

It has been a given of UK foreign policy, however, that sanctions are far more effective for a middle-ranking power like the UK if they are imposed in conjunction with allies. They gain legitimacy, too, if agreed multilaterally, and most sanctions regimes implemented by the UK are agreed by the UN Security Council.

Given that sanctions are largely multilateral, how independent will the UK sanctions regime really be? The legislative framework looks a lot like the US system but the UK’s interests may remain closer to those of neighbours in the EU than those of the US.

UK courts likely to be crucial in shaping policy; it is possible that there will be a big increase in litigation under the new system.

EU sanctions after Brexit

The UK has had an outsize influence on shaping EU sanctions policy. Britain has been possibly the most important supplier of intelligence to EU and the UK’s important financial sector has also given it extra weight. The UK has often pushed for a robust sanctions policy within the EU; after Brexit there is a strong possibility that the EU will become less enthusiastic about sanctions in general.

Diminishing returns?

Transatlantic tensions have increased notably with the election of Donald Trump although the gap may have been widening anyway. Transatlantic cooperation, the backbone of international sanctions regimes, is likely to become more difficult.

They are likely to remain popular as a tool of foreign policy, because they offer an alternative to military action and because new types are being devised.

There is a danger that sanctions could become entangled with increasingly competitive and nationalist trade policies and, being less coordinated, could lose legitimacy. That could detract from their positive effects and exacerbate their unintended consequences.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8402

Author: Ben Smith

Topic: International politics and government

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