Is the European Union a Normative Power?

Commentary by Louis VIS

The idea of a unified Europe was always based on co-operation rather than coercion. Having been built to maintain peace and order on the old continent it soon became evident that once the EU decided to develop its own foreign policy agenda, it would be a very different kind of actor to other superpowers. Indeed, whilst the United States of America (USA) and Russia have mainly relied on unilateral action, ‘hard’ power and violent means to achieve their foreign policy objectives, the EU has adopted a much ‘softer’ and more varied approach based on multilateralism, negotiation and cooperation. Overall the EU has developed its main foreign policy objectives around five core norms and values – peace, human rights, the rule of law, liberty and democracy – which it aims to spread across the world through co-operation, partnership, consultation, transference and contagion rather than coercion.

The EU’s soft power can be highly effective: pro-EU protesters in Ukraine, 2013 – Evgeny Feldman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Rather than fight a ‘war of all against all’ to achieve its foreign policy goals, the EU has used economic, civilian and diplomatic instruments to meet its foreign policy objectives. These include:

  • Positive incentives to promote reforms: The EU’s enlargement policy provides the best example of positive incentives to promote reforms. To be eligible for accession to the EU, all candidate countries must fulfil specific criteria (known as the Copenhagen criteria). This enables the EU to make sure that each candidate country makes the reforms needed to comply with the EU’s norms, laws and values, thus making its integration into the trade bloc smoother. This method is often referred to as the ‘stick and carrot’ approach. Indeed, in return of implementing reforms, candidate countries are gradually given financial and political rewards before being offered full membership. Overall, this method has often proven to work successfully.
  • Selective use of punishing measures: If countries fail to comply with EU laws and/or regulations, the EU often uses the threat of sanctions and/or aid restrictions to attempt to enforce its foreign policy aims and objectives. The EU uses this approach universally, whether the culprits are Member States or not. Furthermore, recent examples demonstrate that the EU does actually go through with such threats. After Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the EU was one of the first global powers to establish economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Similar economic sanctions are also in place against Iran but these will gradually be lifted after a successful deal seeking to control Iran’s nuclear activity was signed. Finally, we have also seen the European Commission suspend all regional-development payments to Scotland over concerns on whether the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, which is led by the Scottish National Party’s (SNP), would  spend its money wisely, accurately and in a transparent manner.
  • Financial support: The EU prides itself in promoting democracy and successful democratic change. Therefore the EU seeks to support countries, aiming to strengthen their democracy by offering financial and political rewards, along with various development and trade policies, in order to successfully promote stability, reforms and reconstruction of democracy. The best example of this would be Tunisia, which has hugely benefited from European help in the aftermaths of its 2011 revolution.

Although scholars agree that the EU is a ‘soft’ power, some argue that the EU only became one by default and necessity rather than choice. They suggest that increasing globalisation and a shift of foreign policy from military and ‘hard’ approaches to more economic and ‘soft’ ones, means the EU did not have many other options. Furthermore others have criticised the EU’s ‘soft approach’ to foreign policy due to the fact it may lead to more ‘goal conflicts’. However, it could also be argued that such an approach should be seen as a fairer and more sensible way to act. Indeed, this approach does seem to be much more appropriate to the present multipolar geopolitical context. Therefore whilst the ‘soft’ approach of the EU may initially seem to fare worse than the mainly military approach of the USA and Russia, there is no doubt that in the long-term it is more beneficial and thus more effective. Not to mention that under George W. Bush, the USA lost some of its past credibility, power and influence, due to the excessive use of its military force. Intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq, for instance, highlighted the limitations of the USA’s approach by making a bad situation worse. Ultimately, although the EU’s approach to foreign policy does have some limitations of its own, an optimist would say it is better.

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