Thursday 18 January 2024

Foreign policy sanctions and criminal law harmonisation


Professor Steve Peers, Royal Holloway University of London

Photo credit: Pierre Blaché, via Wikicommons

*This blog post draws upon and updates research for the 5th edition of EU Justice and Home Affairs Law (OUP, 2023)

Late last year, the EU Member States and the European Parliament agreed upon a Directive to harmonise criminal law as regards EU foreign policy sanctions. This followed barely a year after the EU Council adopted a decision to extend EU criminal law competence to cover those sanctions. This blog post updates a previous post that discussed both the 2022 decision on competence and the initial Commission proposal for a Directive that has now been agreed in principle.

The Decision extending competence

As noted in the previous post – and discussed in more detail there – the 2022 Decision extending EU competence was the first use of the EU’s power to extend the list of crimes which it had competence to harmonise, as set out in Article 83 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The previous list of crimes was: ‘terrorism, trafficking in human beings and sexual exploitation of women and children, illicit drug trafficking, illicit arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting of means of payment, computer crime and organised crime’.

That competence involves not only the ‘definition of criminal offences’ but also ‘sanctions’, ie the length of jail terms and/or other sanctions that can be imposed as part of the criminal law. However, these are ‘minimum rules’ – meaning that Member States can add to them as part of their criminal law.

Since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in 2009, the EU has adopted Directives regarding most of the ten Eurocrimes, in most cases replacing older forms of EU law adopted before the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force. The exceptions are arms trafficking, corruption, and organized crime – although there are pre-Lisbon EU laws concerning the latter two crimes, a proposal from 2023 to update the law regarding corruption, and other EU legislation concerning firearms that falls short of adopting criminal sanctions for arms trafficking. In any event, as we shall see, some arms trafficking will fall within the scope of the newly agreed EU Directive on criminal law and EU foreign policy sanctions.

The legal context: EU foreign policy sanctions

As discussed in more detail in the previous blog post, there is a body of EU law already in this field, based on the EU’s powers to adopt Decisions on foreign policy sanctions (along with other foreign policy issues) on the basis of Article 29 of the Treaty of European Union (TEU), alongside Article 215 TFEU, which provides for most of those foreign policy sanctions to be paralleled in the form of ordinary EU law (in practice, Regulations).

Although Article 215 provides for qualified majority voting of Member States in the Council, the effective rule is actually unanimity, for that is the rule which applies in the foreign policy provisions of the TEU (with marginal exceptions) to the adoption of the EU foreign policy measures which the Article 215 legislation gives effect to.  The Commission proposed a few years ago to drop unanimity here, but Member States didn’t bite. (They would have to agree unanimously to change the voting rule).

Over the years, there have been a lot of EU foreign policy sanctions and a lot of litigation – mostly direct challenges to the validity of the sanctions measures by the persons or companies (or even the States) concerned by them in the EU General Court. That Court’s judgments can be appealed to the CJEU; and national courts have occasionally asked the CJEU about the interpretation or validity of sanctions decisions too. (Although in general the CJEU has no jurisdiction over EU foreign policy measures – an exception which the Court has been slowly eroding for awhile – as an exception to the exception, the CJEU has its normal jurisdiction over foreign policy sanctions: see Article 275 TFEU).

The details of the Decision

A key point about the Decision extending EU competence is that it applies only to the breach of EU foreign policy sanctions. So the Decision does not give the EU power to harmonize criminal law as regards the breach of purely national foreign policy sanctions. The recently agreed Directive respects this distinction, applying only to EU sanctions.

However, the competence – and the recently agreed Directive – are not limited to breach of EU foreign policy sanctions relating to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even though that invasion was the reason why the Decision and the Directive were adopted and agreed. In fact, the Commission proposal for the Decision noted that the EU has forty sanctions regimes, applying not only to countries but also ‘targeting proliferation and use of chemical weapons, cyberattacks, human rights violations and terrorism’. (For more details, see the Council website, especially its sanctions map). The anti-terrorism sanctions have been around for awhile, attracting high profile litigation such as cases involving Mr Kadi or Hamas; the human rights sanctions are fairly new, but will sometimes cross over with other sanctions – see, for instance, the sanctions against Putin’s erstwhile allies, the Wagner Group, for human rights breaches (along with links to other EU sanction measures).

In terms of the type of sanctions covered, the preamble to the Decision, as well as the recently agreed Directive, also makes clear that this is broad, applying not only to economic sanctions such as restrictions on trade or financial relations, but to bans on entry into the territory (which are also already given effect to by listing the sanctioned people in the Schengen Information System) and to arms embargoes. 

The agreed Directive

Basic rules

The recently agreed Directive has similarities to other Directives in this area – see, for instance, the Directive on harmonization of criminal law as regards terrorism. But there are also some new elements compared to other Directives; and in any event, it is the EU’s first foray into adopting criminal law relating to EU foreign policy sanctions.

It should be stressed that (as the preamble to the Decision confirms) the Directive will not make breaches of EU foreign policy sanctions criminal for the first time in most Member States. Just as with issues like terrorism and drug trafficking, these were already crimes in most national laws before EU law came along. But the details of the national laws probably differed more before the EU got involved; the point of the EU’s involvement is to harmonize the national laws somewhat. 

Member States will have to apply the Directive one year after its formal adoption (likely in spring 2024) – so by spring 2025. This is longer than the six months proposed by the Commission, but less than the two year deadline usually applicable to Member States applying Directives.  

As noted already, just like the Decision on competence, the Directive will not be limited just to sanctions against Russia, but will apply to EU foreign policy sanctions across the board.

Denmark has an opt out of EU criminal law adopted after the Treaty of Lisbon, while Ireland opted in.

Definition of crimes

The agreed Directive will require Member States to criminalize nine types of breach of EU sanctions, which can be summarised as: making funds available to sanctioned persons; failing to freeze funds of sanctioned persons; enabling the entry or transit of a person covered by an entry ban deriving from EU sanctions (in effect, an immigration law offence that might overlap with the pre-existing EU law on facilitation of illegal entry and residence – itself subject to a recent proposed replacement); entering into transactions with sanctioned entities; trading in goods or services covered by EU sanctions; providing financial services despite an EU law sanction; providing other services banned by sanctions law; circumvention of sanctions; or abusing exceptions to the sanctions laws.

Member States will have an option (not in the Commission proposal) to exempt from criminalisation breaches involving sums less than €10k, although where multiple such minor breaches are linked, Member States must accumulate them so that they might reach the €10k threshold that way. (This threshold does not apply to entry bans, presumably because a financial threshold is irrelevant)

In every case, an intentional breach will have to be criminalized; and in one case (trade in arms or dual use goods subject to sanctions), ‘serious negligence’ resulting in the breach will have to be criminalized too. The Commission had proposed that ‘serious negligence’ should be criminalised in most cases.   

There is a novel clause on the position of lawyers advising those accused of sanctions breaches, which differs somewhat from the Commission’s proposal:

Nothing in paragraph 1 shall be understood as imposing an obligation on legal professionals to report information that they receive from, or obtain on, one of their clients, in the course of ascertaining the legal position of their client, or performing the task of defending or representing that client in, or concerning, judicial proceedings, including providing advice on instituting or avoiding such proceedings

There is also an exemption for goods or services provided for persons in need or humanitarian aid, although usually EU sanctions law has its own exceptions for those cases anyway.

Inchoate offences of incitement and (in most cases) attempts are also criminalized, as is aiding and abetting.


Member States will have to provide for a maximum possible penalty of at least five years for most of the main offences (not the inchoate offences), and one year for most of the rest of the main offences – subject to a threshold of €100,000 being involved (which can again be satisfied by a linked series of offences). No financial threshold will apply in two cases: breaches of entry bans and trade in sanctioned arms or dual use goods. Furthermore, a three year maximum possible penalty applies to breaches of entry bans.

More generally, as regards the commission of any of the offences defined by the Directive, Member States will be obliged to provide for additional penalties, such as fines, withdrawal of permits, and even (a novelty for EU criminal law) a temporary ban on running for office.

Legal persons are subject to liability, too, and must be subject to penalties such as shutting down the business or withdrawal of its licences. This is a longer list than usually provided for in EU criminal law Directives. The Directive will go further than usual in specifying the amount of possible fines, including basing them on annual turnover (a method previously applied in non-criminal areas of EU law, such as competition law and the GDPR).

Criminal liability must be aggravated in certain cases (such as organized crime, breach of duty by a public official or a professional, obstruction of justice, or prior convictions in this field), and mitigated in others (where the offender ‘flips’ on his or her criminal associates).

Other provisions

Criminal jurisdiction would apply, as usual under EU criminal law Directives, to acts committed on the territory, on a ship or aircraft with a national flag, or by nationals. Member States will have an option to apply liability to habitual residents.

Unusually, there will be rules on limitation periods, ie when Member States would be out of time to bring a prosecution or enforce a sentence. In most cases the limitation period would be five years, with a possibility for derogation to at least three years where the period can be interrupted by specified acts. Previously Member States have only agreed to regulate this issue via EU law as regards fraud against the EU budget (although the agreed Directive on environmental crime contains limitation rules, and the proposal on violence against women would also address this point).

Finally, there would be links to other EU law (besides, obviously, the sanctions laws themselves). The proposal would link up with EU criminal law on money laundering and confiscation (the latter now also being amended), plus there is a novel link to the EU legislation on whistleblowers: that law must also apply to protect those in a company or organization who tip off the authorities about breaches of sanctions. Conversely, there is no proposed amendment of the law on the European Arrest Warrant – even though breach of EU foreign policy sanctions is not on the list of crimes where the dual criminality condition for extradition must be waived. However, prosecution or sentences for sanctions breaches will sometimes fall within areas where dual criminality has to be waived (like terrorism or organized crime); and the dual criminality condition is more likely to be met as a result of the harmonization Directive anyway (it may even be met already, simply by virtue of the foreign policy sanctions measures themselves). 


It is hard to assess the likely impact of the Directive, for several reasons.

First of all, it is difficult to see what impact the Directive will have in practice without more detail on what changes would be made to national law as a consequence of its adoption. As noted already, while the Directive will bring about some harmonisation, Member States already have some criminal laws on the books in this field.

Secondly, a key issue with criminal law – just as with non-criminal forms of regulation of conduct – is that its effectiveness depends upon the resources and expertise necessary to investigate and bring prosecutions. On this point, the prospect of extending competence to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to include breaches of EU foreign policy sanctions was raised by the German and French justice ministers. This would be important but has not been raised again since the Directive was proposed. (Extensions of EPPO competence need unanimous agreement of Member States, although some Member States have opted out of the EPPO; the Commission’s proposal to extend its competence to terrorism has not been agreed so far).

An extension of EU competence might be seen as an EU power-grab, but it is notable that it is an exception: over fourteen years after the Lisbon Treaty came into force, it is the only such extension of competence to date. By contrast, as noted above, Member States have not yet agreed an earlier proposal to extend the list of Eurocrimes to cover hate speech and hate crimes, or agreed the proposal to drop unanimous voting for some foreign policy measures; nor have they agreed to drop unanimity in a number of other areas which the Commission proposed years ago.  

It is striking to see some novel points (for EU criminal law) in this Directive: the specific rule on lawyers; the penalty of a ban on running for office (obviously relevant because politicians might be tempted to, and be in a position to, breach the sanctions); the more detailed regulation of financial penalties a la other areas of (non-criminal) EU law; the obstruction of justice point; and the link with the whistleblowers law. It is only the second time that the EU has agreed to regulate limitation periods (although the revised environmental crime directive, also including similar provisions, was agreed essentially simultaneously).

It is also significance to see the singling out of arms trade in breach of sanctions for stricter treatment in several respects, given the EU’s reluctance to regulate this issue as a Eurocrime to date. In the context of foreign policy sanctions, it makes sense to treat the arms trade more seriously, given its more direct contribution to the death and injury which the EU sanctions aim to end.

The extension of competence is also best understood as part of the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which has also prompted developments as regards the start (in principle) of accession negotiations, the use of EU defence powers, and the first-ever use of the long-dormant temporary protection Directive. By itself, the extension of EU competence and the use of those criminal law powers will not end the invasion – and, as noted already, the agreed Directive applies to other EU sanctions too. Nor does it address the criticism that that those sanctions are too little and too late. But it may make some contribution to the effective implementation of those sanctions which have been established to oppose the invasion, and in any event it sends a political message that the EU is stepping up their enforcement.

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