The EU as an international actor

A researcher from Singapore Management University studies how the European Union wields sanctions and other foreign policy tools on the international stage.

Assistant Professor Clara Portela

SMU Office of Research – The European Union (EU), comprising 28 states, is perceived mainly as an economic powerhouse. Taken together, its countries make up one of the largest economies in the world and it is a force to be reckoned with in international trade.

But it is also an important actor on the international relations stage, says Assistant Professor Clara Portela of the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Social Sciences, who studies EU foreign policy, and how it goes above and beyond the policies of its individual member countries.

In particular, Professor Portela studies sanctions, which is the main foreign policy tool the EU uses. “Most European studies scholars look at the internal policies of the EU. What I am interested in is how the EU, as a sui generis actor in international relations, behaves in the international system, and how EU foreign policy differs from the foreign policies of the individual states,” she shares.

The role of sanctions in the EU’s foreign policy

The EU, Professor Portela argues, is in a class of its own, somewhere between a state and an international organisation like the United Nations. In some ways, sanctions help to define the EU’s identity. “Because it is an international organisation, not a state, it doesn’t really have a self-evident identity; this identity needs to be constructed,” she notes.

Professor Portela explains that the EU’s use of sanctions helps to promote the idea that it has a foreign policy beyond promoting trade interests—one that is aimed at promoting human rights and democratic standards worldwide, such as the condemnation of state-sponsored violence against civilians.

EU sanctions also tend to complement measures taken by the United Nations (UN), or provide an alternative in cases where the UN does not have the mandate to act, such as when there are disagreements within the UN Security Council. In 2014, when Russia made military incursions into Ukraine, the EU and other Western countries froze assets and slapped travel bans on senior Russian officials and businesses. Such sanctions, she suggests, are a way of sending a firm message to an errant state without having to resort to military action.

EU policy closer to home

Meanwhile, Professor Portela examines the phenomenon of member states objecting to EU sanctions in “Member States Resistance to EU Foreign Policy Sanctions“, an article published in the European Foreign Affairs Review in 2015. She explains that if member states have serious objections to the imposition of sanctions, they can veto the adoption of those measures, or take other forms of action—resisting the sanctions already imposed by delaying their implementation, contravening travel and visa bans, adopting incompatible national policies and breaking other ‘rules’ after a sanction is in place.

Scrutinising the relationship between UN sanctions and regional ones, such as those imposed by the EU, Ecowas (the West African economic community) and the African Union, Professor Portela found that sanctions imposed by regional organisations are an important factor in attracting the attention of the UN Security Council. The research is described in a more recent paper entitled “The UN, Regional Sanctions and Africa“, published in the journal International Affairs in 2015.

“The UN is loath to intervene in situations where there is little regional consensus,” she says. “In most cases where the UN imposed sanctions on African targets, there were already sanctions in place imposed by Ecowas or the African Union, or by the EU or trans-regional organisations like the Commonwealth.”

One future direction for Professor Portela’s research is teasing apart the question of how the EU behaves towards its immediate neighbours compared to its behaviour towards countries further afield. In an earlier article entitled “Where and why does the EU impose sanctions?”, published in the journal Politique europeenne in 2005, Professor Portela examined how the geographical distribution of EU sanctions reveal the organisations’ regional priorities. “The assumption is that in the immediate neighbourhood, countries have more of a stake in cooperating, whereas European countries are less directly affected by what happens in sub-Saharan Africa or in Asia, for example, and the consequences [of imposing sanctions] are lighter.”

But Professor Portela is finding the opposite to be true. EU countries seem to be more likely to impose sanctions on neighbours, for fear of importing spill over effects like political instability, organised crime, and so on, into their backyard. “If neighbouring countries are well-governed, it’s easier for you to cooperate with them,” she says.

A new perspective from Singapore

For a scholar of European studies, Professor Portela, who is Spanish, is a long way from home. Since joining SMU in 2008, she says what she really enjoys most is being able to get a different perspective on the EU and its policies. She has even written about it in an article, “The Perception of the European Union in Southeast Asia”, for the Asia Europe Journal in 2010, where she evaluates positive and negative perceptions of the EU seen through a Southeast Asian lens.

“Being based in Singapore allowed me to familiarise myself with a number of debates that are framed very differently in Europe. For a scholar of international relations, this is intellectually stimulating,” she says. “Being able to observe how the EU and its policies are perceived in this part of the world has been no less than eye-opening.”

By Grace Chua