Challenging Normative Power Europe – EU Trade & Development Policy

Commentary by Jasmin HARPER

Since the creation of the European Economic Community, there has been an on-going debate about the nature of the European Union (EU) as an international actor. Historically, most of the discussion has centered around issues of power and the argument of whether the EU is a predominantly civilian or military power. However, recently some scholars have moved away from discussions of the EU’s capabilities and state-like features towards an understanding of the EU’s international identity. One of the most well-known competing arguments to describe the type of power the EU wields is Ian Manner’s ‘Normative Power Europe’ (NPE) framework.

This article will argue that Manner’s conception of NPE is problematic due to discrepancies between the concept and the EU’s actions, particularly regarding the EU’s prioritisation of trade objectives over development goals in developing countries.

What is NPE?

NPE asserts that the EU’s ‘actorness’ should be located in a discussion of ‘power over opinion’. Manners and his followers argue that the EU has a so-called ‘normative difference’ in its relations with other powers based on the idea that the EU’s power resides in its ability to be a changer of norms in the international system. The concept stresses the idea that the EU is able to exercise global power through an ability to shape global opinions and norms and particularly due to its commitment to five core norms (peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law and human rights) and four minor norms (social solidarity, anti­-discrimination, sustainable development and good governance). Despite claims that these normative values form the basis of the EU’s foreign policy, is is clear that there are policies inconsistent with this framework.

Inconsistencies in NPE within EU Trade and Development Policies

The EU’s Trade and Development policies represent the most notable inconsistencies between EU actions and the NPE framework. As the world’s largest trading bloc – accounting for approximately one-fifth of the trade in goods and services – the EU is a key player in global economic governance and is involved in an extensive array of multilateral and bilateral trade agreements. Accordingly, its trade policies are particularly relevant to developing countries, and trade has been a tool in the EU’s relationship with developing countries since the Treaty of Rome.

Cotonou Partnership Agreement countries – Smurfy, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0:
– Light Green: Caribbean group
– Dark Green: West African group
– Orange: Central African group
– Blue: Southern African group
– Red: East and South Africa group
– Yellow: Pacific Group

However, a paradox exists at the core of the relationship between the EU’s trade and development policies: even though the EU has recently placed a greater emphasis on trade as a tool for development, especially towards least-developed countries, it also pursues a number of policy initiatives that often have extremely negative consequences for those same countries. Most significantly, the general direction of EU trade policy has been towards eliminating preferential market access, an area traditionally central to the EU’s trade as development policy. This paradox can been seen in the EU’s Cotonou Partnership Agreement with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. These negotiations present a most-likely case in which the EU should act as a normative power in trade relations because these countries are not significant trading partners. Trade with the 75 ACP countries only accounts for five per cent of the EU’s external trade, therefore if there is any case where we should expect the EU to act normatively, it’s in these negotiations.

However, while the EU may portray itself as a benevolent development actor working towards stated goals of ‘partnership’ and the ‘eradication of poverty’, its actual behaviour in the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations is inconsistent with the NPE framework. In particular, there are inconsistencies with the social solidarity, sustainable development and good governance principles. First, forcing the ACPs to negotiate in allocated regional sub-groupings that do not correspond with Africa’s other regional integration efforts runs directly contrary to the EU’s promotion social solidarity as only the EU stands to gain from these groupings. Second, the EPAs represent major inconsistencies in the EU’s promotion of sustainable development due to risks of environmental exploitation, risks which have even been detailed by the EU’s own studies. The fact that these warnings have been ignored makes it clear that the EU is pursuing these policies because of the possible benefits for European business. Finally, the inclusion of the ‘Singapore Issues’ in the EPAs is the most obvious indicator of the EU promoting competitive advantage over normative, development goals. These issues are clearly for the benefit of businesses seeking to secure ‘first-mover’ advantages, and their inclusion demonstrates how the EPAs are almost identical to commercially-motivated FTAs.

Overall, the EU seems more interested in promoting its trade agenda than addressing development concerns in ACP countries. Due to the importance of consistency in norms promotion, the fact that the EU’s normative principles were not upheld in this case reveals that there was a specific cost-benefit calculation involved. This has serious implications on the explanatory power of NPE as it is evident that the EU’s actions reflect less a normative agenda than a forceful pursuit of EU economic interests.

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