Just weeks ago, there was widespread hope that the EU—armed with its first-ever worldwide sanctions framework and giddy over having a trusted partner in Washington again—could become the global human rights defender it has long fancied itself.
2021, however, has unleashed a perfect storm of international crises that have illustrated how policymakers in Brussels are still reaching for low-hanging fruit in order to avoid cannibalising their commercial interests to exert real pressure on international human rights offenders.
Mr. Borrell goes to Moscow
Recent weeks have been full of Brussels’ lacklustre reactions to serious challenges, from the EU’s willingness to “wait and see” as Lukashenko continues a six-month crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, to a toothless statement following December’s rigged elections in Venezuela, to some Tweeted concern after a coup put Myanmar back under military rule.
The most egregious recent example, however, of the EU’s diplomatic tightrope walking was foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s trip earlier this month to Moscow. Borrell’s excursion, which came amidst heightened tensions following Russia’s particularly brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters against opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, was so catastrophic that more than 50 MEPs have knives out for Borrell to resign.
Indeed, though the EU has a history of treading too lightly with Putin’s regime, the press conference held by Borrell and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on February 5th was particularly humiliating. In what one journalist dubbed “a lesson in hubris and failure”, Borrell went on a tangent attacking the US over its Cuban embargo and enthusiastically endorsed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine while Lavrov bashed the EU as an “unreliable partner” and expelled 3 European diplomats mid-press conference.
Likely hoping to salvage both his job and the EU’s foreign policy chops, Borrell subsequently announced that he would propose a list of Russians to sanction under the bloc’s new human rights regime. Based on past experience, however, there’s little hope that these sanctions will be effectively targeted. As one Russian opposition politician recently noted, the EU has the instruments to strike a direct blow against Putin’s inner circle, yet—largely thanks to economic considerations—Brussels’ sanctions tend to inflict mere flesh wounds on “the guiltiest crooks” while causing serious collateral damage.
EU Magnitsky Act mostly for show?
Early indications suggest that the EU’s cousin to the US Magnitsky Act is unlikely to usher in a more efficient European sanctions programme. The same day as Borrell’s Moscow fiasco, Belgian MEP Marie Arena and a number of her colleagues sent him a letter calling for the EU to impose sanctions—not on the Russian regime which had just taken Borrell to the cleaners, but on Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, a mining magnate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Mystifying on the surface, the suggestion to sanction Gertler underlines the key stumbling blocks holding up EU sanctions policy. First of all, as the MEPs’ letter acknowledges, Gertler has been accused not of human rights abuses—the only area covered under the EU’s new sanctions regime—but of corruption. Changing the scope of the European sanctions framework to go after Gertler instead of using the law for its intended purpose would be nothing short of a travesty of the EU’s ‘values-based’ foreign policy.
Picking low-hanging fruit while economic partnerships grow ripe
It’s difficult to understand what additional purpose EU sanctions on Gertler would achieve, other than as a scapegoat to signal the EU’s willingness to promote good governance abroad while shielding the bloc from significant economic and political blowback. This falls into a longstanding pattern, in which Brussels has shown itself unwilling to take the economic hit necessary to effect lasting change abroad, instead imposing piecemeal measures
In response to Russia’s steady erosion of the rule of law, Brussels has repeatedly renewed sanctions which have proven singularly ineffective at containing Moscow. Putin’s judo partner Arkady Rotenberg has prospered so well under EU sanctions that he recently claimed the £1 billion “Putin Palace” as his, while some of the Kremlin’s dedicated apologists have skirted restrictions entirely. Meanwhile, the bloc has stubbornly refused to hit Russia where it hurts by jettisoning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
A similar storm seems to be brewing amid mounting evidence that China is carrying out a comprehensive assault on its Uighur ethnic minority, including torture, forced sterilisation and modern slavery. MEPs have repeatedly called for EU sanctions on those responsible. Instead, Brussels has tried to present the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement, triumphantly rolled out in December 2020, as a victory for both Europe’s economy and human rights abroad. In its tenacious defence of the deal, the European Commission has cast clauses about forced labour as a major step towards holding China accountable for human rights abuses—while an international coalition of experts on China and human rights have deemed these promises “so vague as to be essentially useless”.
These experts theorised that the misguided deal is “based on a naïve set of assumptions about the character of the Chinese Communist Party”. Borrell played up a similar naïveté in the wake of his dressing-down in Moscow, expressing “deep disappointment”. This coy surprise, however, is disingenuous after a long history of cherry-picking figureheads to censure while deepening trade ties with oppressive regimes. With Biden in the White House and a worldwide sanctions regime hammered out, the EU has the tools and the partners to become a true global human rights watchdog—if it’s finally willing to shoulder the necessary economic and political consequences.