With the March deadline approaching for Britain to depart the European Union, there are concerns that Britain's exit could undermine Western sanctions against countries like Iran, Syria and North Korea. Analysts note that Britain has been influential in persuading the EU to take action, saying there are risks Britain will seek a different path as it carves out new economic and strategic partnerships.
“Some estimates hold that up to 80 percent of the EU’s sanctions that are in place have been put forward or suggested by the UK," said Erica Moret, chair of the Geneva International Sanctions Network.
She says Britain's future absence from EU meetings will impact the bloc's future relations. "The UK is also a very important player of course as a leading economic and political power, a soft power player in the world. Also the City of London means that financial sanctions are rendered much stronger through the UK’s participation.”
Britain was quick to coordinate expulsions of Russian diplomats among EU allies following the nerve agent attack in the city of Salisbury last year against a former double agent, an incident London blamed on Moscow.
Through EU membership, Britain enforces common sanctions against several other states and individuals, such as Syrian officials accused of war crimes.
After the Brexit deadline day on March 29, Britain will be free to implement its own sanctions.
“I wouldn’t see this happening in the short term, especially because again both sides have said they are committed to EU sanctions and they are also committed to projecting some political values that both EU and UK agree to,” says Anna Nadibaidze of the policy group Open Europe.
Britain, however, could seek a competitive advantage over Europe by diverging its sanctions policy, says Moret.
“It’s very unlikely that the UK would deliberately seek to gain commercial advantage over EU partners. But when you think about the tensions that will come into play post-Brexit, when it comes down to trying to negotiate new trade deals, seeking new foreign investment into the country. There will be pressure, a balance to be made between alignment with EU sanctions and domestic interests.”
That pressure could be felt first over Iran. Alongside European allies, Britain backs the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which lifted some Western sanctions on Tehran in return for a suspension of its atomic enrichment program. U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal last year, saying Iran has violated the spirit of the agreement.
Britain urgently wants a trade deal with the United States after Brexit. Will the price be alignment with Washington’s policy on Iran?
“That is a key risk and it’s a very important one that will be in the forefront of policymakers’ minds,” adds Moret.
Britain was among EU nations backing sanctions against an Iranian intelligence unit this week, accusing Tehran of plotting attacks and assassinations in Europe. Both Brussels and London say they will continue to work together to counter common threats through a range of policy tools including sanctions.