The Myth of Exceptional Europe: The Failure of EU Foreign Policy

The notion of the European Union being an exceptional international actor is well established in the literature and dates from the very inception of ‘Europe’ as being a continental peace project. In today’s literature, while a number of variations on the theme exist, the dominant model is that of the Union as a ‘normative power’. As initially defined and conceptualised by Ian Manners, this argued that Europe wielded power ‘…of an ideational nature characterized by common principles and a willingness to disregard Westphalian conventions’(Manners 2002:239). Moreover, and artfully, it was argued that this challenge related not just to what the Union did within the international system, but to what the Union was. In other words, through its very being – almost as a soft power superpower (Nye 1990) – the Union could reshape international norms and change the tune of the ancient Westphalian dance of states (Diez, Manners et al. 2011).

The idea of the Union being a unique normative power has thus become a powerful story underpinning the Union’s claim to exceptionalism in the international system. It is also a story that has been recommended to, and echoed by, senior European political figures (Manners 2008). At the same time, it is just one story – or narrative (albeit a powerful one) – that aspires to create an overarching understanding of the Union as an international actor. The fact that this narrative reading of the Union offers such comfort to European policymakers (after all, they are reshaping the world for the better!) and such comparative advantage to academics (who are now expert analysts of a uniquely powerful international actor) arguably contributes significantly to the narrative’s strength.

How is the Union’s claimed exceptional nature perceived, presented and qualified? To what extent if at all has the Union fulfilled expectations of exceptional behaviour? Does the Union’s existence make any discernible impact on the conduct of international politics? These are significant questions not least because in its Lisbon Treaty reforms the Union appears to have been bent towards the (re)production of a nation state actor model even as it lacks the deep ideational roots necessary to the conduct of foreign policy. The Union is also appealing to what it sees as its own stakeholders – the member states – based upon on a shallow rationalist calculation of added-value to national power. It is this very effort that undermines its claims to a transformatory ambition.

Academic analysts are familiar with the Union’s foreign policy story: European integration was a post-war peace project whose construction was designed as an antithesis to the continent’s bloody history and even as an antidote to nationalism itself. As a result, Europe had a global mission to promote liberal democracy and its associated political values, to defend human rights internationally, and to support integrative efforts in other parts of the world. This could even entail the export its own integrative model representing modernity and progressive values. Europe’s own enlargement could also be seen in this light. The accession of Greece in 1981 was part of the Union’s vocation to sustain newly emerging democracies, an engagement being repeated even today in the Balkans. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War and its obsession with military power, the Union could now powerfully contribute to a ‘new’ security dynamic rooted in rights, justice, development and ‘human security’.

The reality with which we are faced, however, some two years after the establishment of post-Lisbon institutions, Is rather different. The Union has not ‘made good’ on its promise. Whether on Libya, the broader Arab Spring, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, poverty eradication, climate change etc etc., the Union has offered no substantive, successful evidence of its transformatory capacity. To where do we look for explanation or understanding of this manifest failure?

The Union’s traditional reformist chant of coherence, effectiveness and credibility has been directed towards what it sees as its primary stakeholders – the member states. One the face of it this is logical, as the foreign policy project is itself a creature of the member states and its ‘success’ rests on their willingness to provide the political will, resources and ambition necessary to the creation of an EU foreign security and defence policy. In doing so however, in keeping their gaze so firmly focused on the member states, those responsible for the conduct of the Union’s foreign policy forget the nature and purpose of that policy; to vindicate the values and interests of the people on whose behalf that foreign policy exists. The Union is a union of states and peoples. It has lost sight of its peoples.

The Union has not challenged Westphalian conventions. it has pursued them, avidly. It appears desperate to (re)create itself as a 19th century power in a 21st century world. Instead of using the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions as a means to create a truly new kind of international actor, it has instead pursued the creation of an empty and largely incompetent shell – a simulacrum of a nation state, with a fake Foreign Minister, a fake Foreign Ministry and a fake army. The Union resembles little more than the unattractive teenager at the school dance engaged in a desperate makeover to be invited onto the dance floor.

If the European Union is to recapture the potential of its own mythology, to engage with the world on a different basis to that of its constituent member states, then the Union must re engage with its own citizens. It must connect with their values and interests in ways that are not mediated through foreign ministries. It must have the capacity to see beyond the battlements of national interests. If it continues to fail in that effort, if it is shaped solely by virtue of its added-value to the power calculations of the member states, then it will have failed its own history and purpose. It will also have failed its peoples.

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