Understanding the EU global actorness in the post-Brexit era

di Emanuele Errichiello - 7 Febbraio 2020

 from London, United Kingdom


With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, new-old debates on the existence of a global actorness of the EU have started to emerge again, seeking to understand the changes the aforementioned departure can cause. This article seeks to provide a consistent framework to understand the current and the future EU global actorness through the lens of the Normative Power Approach.

The development of the theorization of the EU global actorness has been mainly tied to debates over its existence, nature or effectiveness (Tonra, 2003). Yet, in a literature dominated by approaches holding an instrumental perspective on how actors and institution are and operate, the resulting understanding of the EU appears limited in consistently explaining both what the EU-as-an-actor is, and the way it operates. Indeed, by merely focusing on constant phenomena and structures, concentrating on fixed matters (e.g. coherence and consistency), and through a proactive approach to international relations, the aforementioned accounts have historically ignored the multifaceted features that the EU expresses as a sui generis actor. This becomes even clearer when, in considering the developments of the EU, there is evidently something of a disjuncture with what dominant rationalist accounts would have expected from it.

First, there has been a significant boost in the policy-making structures underpinning the foreign-policy bodies of the EU, which led to further institutionalization and co-operation (ibid). Second, decision-making has also changed. A network of procedures linked through ‘common strategies’ and ‘joint actions’ has discharged the pretentious intergovernmentalism of the EPC (Bretherton and Vogler, 1999). Third, the EU has demonstrated not to fit within the understanding of the world as great power dynamics, and thus within the logics of macro-security constellations (Buzan & Wæver, 2009). Rather, through the postulation of an ontology of the contextual complexity, the EU has constructed itself as a sui generis persona, therefore building a new governmental – or ‘hybrid’ – episteme (Manners & Whitman, 2003; de Weijer, 2013). Thereupon, by refusing the hubristic assumptions embodied in the great powers’ debate, the EU is seen here as constructing itself in a variety of forms that altogether constitute its international presence.

Theoretical Framework

In this context, the debate over the ‘successfulness’ of the EU international actorness cannot rely on those Foucauldian ‘said truths’. Au contraire, the analyses henceforth shall create an alternative genealogy of knowledge, which is able to grasp the new complexities of this sui generis actor. In trying to proceed towards the aforementioned direction, this short paper contends that the employment of a Normative Power Approach (NPA), by reason of its ontological and epistemological stances, is the most appropriate for this aim. Indeed, the approach would nuance the understanding of such a multifaceted actor by showing the latter’s ability to successfully shaping different arenas of the international system: the civilian, the military and the normative (Manners, 2002; 2006; 2009).

Briefly, NPA assumes that the EU characterizes its actorness through its ability to use instruments to shape the abovementioned domains. These instruments are conceptualized in this paper as both habitus – policy instruments – and illusio – ‘improvisation’ outside the formal agreements, which is able to shape the norm and potentially creating new habitus (Adler-Nissen, 2013; Bourdieu in Cornut, 2018). Furthermore, the NPA approach tackles the problematics surrounding the conceptualization of ‘successfulness’ by assuming that an interacting actor is successful per se by reason of its very ability to shape an arena and the actors involved through its presence – interactors and their instruments as interface (Korosteleva et al, 2013).

On these premises – operating on the three different arenas as three different levels of analysis, and providing empirical support to back the claim ‘EU-as-a-global-actor’ – this work will proceed as follows. First, it will assess the ability of the EU to interact in the civilian domain. Second, it will move onto the military arena. Lastly, it will focus on the EU’s stances as a normative actor.

The Civilian Power of the EU

Following the NPA formulation, which builds upon the differentiation from Duchêne’s ‘civilian power’ conceptualization (Duchêne, 1972; Manners, 2002), the civilian domain is characterized by those practices that are broadly economic, humanitarian or both (in case of sanctions). In this context, taking practices as policy instruments, building upon Whitman’s (1997) categorization of the latter into procedural, transference, declaratory, overt tools, and admitting the importance of informal practices, the work can now look at empirical examples more in-depth.

The EU boasts a wide and established network of free trade agreements (FTAs) with third actors and represents its trade stances in international fora – the WTO inter alia – giving a clear example of employment of procedural instruments, or in other words institutionalized relationships. Expressly, the EU has reached different types of trade agreements with Central American countries, Peru and Colombia, South Korea, and more recently with Canada, Japan and Vietnam. This instrument, as shown by the Policy Department for External Action (2018), has led to quite impressive sectoral effects in both the EU and its partners, and in particular when analyzing sectoral trade flows.

An outstanding case was the preannounced disaster of the South Korean deal in the automotive sector, which proved to be, by contrast, a success in terms of export increase for both the EU and South Korea (DG for External Policies, 2018). Agreements with Central American countries, Peru and Colombia have also experienced particular sectoral gains as shown through the CGE model, with setbacks being only caused due to broader structural trends or global macroeconomic effects. In particular, these countries saw an average increase in exports of 5,6% circa as a direct effect of the trade agreements (ibid). Export also benefited from agreements with Japan and Canada (ibid).

Very importantly, this data shows how the agreements have not been kept only on paper, but have rather led to the creation of actual (positive) practices whereby the international presence of the EU in this arena has been constituted. Moreover, the adaptation of the agreements in the contexts is also proof of the multiplicity of the EU actorness – which is given by its inherent sui generis interactional nature, rather than by its inconsistency.

The aforementioned presence of the EU in this domain can also be proved through transference instruments. These instruments are particularly developed in the context of the ENPI (European neighbourhood and partnership instrument) which currently covers over 18 activities just in the Eastern neighbourhood. This, together with sanctions, is understood as a sign of presence from the EU in its relations vis-à-vis Russia (Korosteleva et al, 2013; Korosteleva, 2017). Interestingly enough, it has been shown (ibid) how the response of Russia in the region has changed accordingly, proving the successful constitutive nature of relationality.

A Military Power?

Whilst it could be argued that a conceptualization of the military domain would be superficially seen its meaning is linguistically intrinsic, it is nevertheless important to specify how the military is clearly not the raison d’être of the EU’s international actorness. However, it would be naïve not to take into account this arena, given the existence of terrestrial (EUFOR), naval (EU NAVFOR) and training missions (EUTM).

Clearly, these missions embed various forms of covert instruments, that is the permanent or transitory physical presence of the EU outside the community. Notably, the EU currently boasts 17 CSDP missions, 11 of which in MENA and Central African countries. When analyzing these, as well as the 18 completed missions, the record of the EU as an actor might seem to prove the absence of an overarching strategy (McDonagh, 2015). Nonetheless, as McDonagh (ibid: 638) noted: ‘the ontological question may not lie in the policy pronouncements in Brussels or the statements agreed at EU Council meetings, but rather in the actual practices on the ground’. In a similar conceptual vein, King (2006) argued how the EU actorness is actually embedded in the practical social relations the EU has militarily, and in the way these relations shape the actors involved.

These formulations are quite in accordance with the broader NPA’s idea that: (1) actorness success is based on the capacity to shape a context and the actors by its very presence; (2) illusio must be taken into account to have a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of these missions. Hence, proceeding outside the capability and impact debate, and analyzing the ground practices of these particular forms of social interaction, one can see how the EU has interestingly developed successful (military) constitutional processes for both its Selves and third actors. This was particularly clear in the EU mission in Chad, where the experience on the ground led the heads of the mission to reestablish the structure of the personnel without French soldiers, who were perceived as enemies by locals because of France’s historical colonial presence in the region (McDonagh, 2015).

While this has been often perceived as a problem of inconsistency, this paper contends that such situations are actually interesting for analyzing the processual change of the EU actorness. Furthermore, they help the construction of an outside perception of the EU as a becoming military actor, whose features are a being (rather than an is), dictated by its interactions – both internally and externally. It should be no surprise, in this context, the emergence of a debate over the EU/NATO dichotomy (see Cornish & Edwards, 2001). Indeed, regardless of the formulations on the EU originated from this debate (ibid), the very existence of the latter proves a formal recognition of the EU as am international military actor and, thus, its successfulness in constructing itself as such.

(Still) Projecting Normative Power

The normative arena is the final level of analysis sine qua non the whole NPA investigation would not cohere. Normative actorness is conceptualized by Manners (2002) as the ability to shape the conception of ‘normal’. Specifically, the ability to project an actorness abroad through the capacity to shape universal norms and principles that dictate the way actors (should) behave.

Much of the debate on the normative power of the EU (NPE) has erroneously focused on the very first formulations given by Manners (see Diez, 2005; Smith, 2005), yet without considering two important factors. First, the very specific historical contingency of those formulations (i.e. how the focus on the pursuit of human rights was given at that time by the EU’s efforts on challenging the death penalty). Second, the continuity-change nexus. The latter is crucial, insofar the underestimation of the power of norms-change has led to a fixation over pre-existing norms which resulted outdated (e.g. fixation over death penalty as a leading example to support the thesis). In fact, when it comes to analyze NPE nowadays, it is of utmost importance to acknowledge the evolutions in terms of norm paradigms that the EU has taken, namely its focus on environmental issues and digital rights.

More specifically, the Union is an exceptional participant in the global environmental negotiations, as the vast majority of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) testify (Vogler, 2005). Also, the EU’s requirements for membership in the Union (see Van Schaik & Egenhofer, 2003) proves an intense effort of the EU in the creation of an internal agenda for a norm change in terms of environmental policy (Vogler, 2005). Crucially, this creates a contagion effects which allows the Union to project its normative power in the global context. This has been particularly the case with trade partners, which are asked to respect the EU’s attitude in the environmental domain (ibid).

On a further note, US current obstructionism – particularly in the context of the Paris agreement – has facilitated the Union’s position as a leading actor in the field. Nevertheless, this influence extends also beyond this. There are long-standing agreements with Central and Northern African countries whereby, through the employment of negative transference instruments, the EU has been able to minimize the contamination of nuclear energy and to demand the pursuit of sustainable development (ibid). Similarly, more recently, the European Union, through the creation of a new paradigm for digital rights protection – the EU Digital Privacy and Data Protection Law – has been able to shape the discourse in this field thereby new far-reaching standards have been imposed, and new business models have emerged in Europe and are being used in other regions of the world as a preventive measure (Ni Loideain, 2016; Buttarelli, 2016; Birnhack, 2008).

Conclusively, this work has tried to prove the extent to which the EU has to be considered as a global actor. In constructing a ‘different engine’ for its actorness (Manners & Whitman, 2003), it has been shown how, if one moves away from the mere military-capabilities fixation, and rather focus on the way the EU is able to shape the arenas in which operates, a consistent sui generis international actorness can be found.

On a more self-critical note, considering the limitations given by the words limit and lack of necessary funds, the work has found little space for an in-depth empirical analysis through the lens of practice theory, which would have strengthened both the consistency and the validity of the work. However, this piece of paper can be considered as a basis – capable to grasp the multifaceted, multi-layered features of the EU’s modus operandi – whereby building future investigations.


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Autore dell’articolo* lo Young Thinktanker Emanuele Errichiello , Addetto agli affari europei del Think Tank Trinità dei Monti, nonchè studente post-lauream in European Studies presso la London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.

* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.