Open Europe Blog

EU sanctions on Russia: Who holds the key?

EU foreign ministers are meeting today to decide what pressure to put on Russia. However, although trade and economic sanctions have been discussed in the US, the EU is less than enthusiastic. Under the EU treaties trade sanctions are decided unanimously, so all EU states will have a say – and for those wishing to take a harder line, the EU does not hold all the cards.

On paper the EU has a strong hand with Russia. Russia is the third largest trading partner of the EU and the EU is the largest trading partner of Russia and runs a large deficit.

Germany accounts for a large proportion
of the EU’s trade with Russia (Eurostat 2013)

Of this EU/Russia trade, Germany is the most important accounting for 30% of the EU’s exports to Russia. In addition, there are some states such as Finland who for historical and geographical reasons conduct a large proportion of their trade with Russia, making them vulnerable to an East/West showdown. Through their banking systems, Cyprus and the UK also have important financial and investment links with Russia and Russian individuals.

However, there is another important factor that counts against the EU. For although the EU is a large trading partner, 80% of the EU’s imports from Russia are energy. This dependancy is particulay acute for gas – as you can see from the chart below, the Baltic States, the Finns, Czechs, Slovaks and Bulgarians are, according to Eurostat, 100% dependant on Russian gas. A mild winter and a relatively large European stockpile of gas means this risk is perhaps less critical than it might have been in previous years, but it could still cause them severe problems if this dispute were to escalate.

Eurostat (Oct 2012)

So will we see trade sanctions? Well probably not for the practical reasons above, but other sanctions are possible, arms embaragoes are not decided en masse so could be implemented swiftly by the UK, France and Germany. Targeted economic sanctions on individuals are also possible.

So on sanctions, an EU-US good cop/bad cop routine has an element of European self-interest to it.

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