Since its inception in the 1950s, the EU has evolved and grown in influence, earning itself the title of global actor. This essay aims to evaluate which theoretical concept, constructivism, realism or liberal intergovernmentalism (LI) best encompasses the emergence of the EU as a global actor. The essay will first establish the reasons the EU can be considered a global actor, defining constructivism, realism and liberalism. Analysing the contributions of constructivism in understanding the rise of the EU as a global actor, the essay will then examine how the rationalist theories of realism and LI fall short. Therefore, this essay will argue that constructivism provides the most convincing theoretical explanation for the emergence of the EU as a global actor insofar as allowing for a broader and more nuanced understanding of EU policy-making.
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The EU first emerged as a solution to the security threats facing Europe in the post-war era. Initially having only 6 members, the EU’s rapid growth and expansion to 28 member states, coupled with the establishment of EU institutions would allow for its emergence as a global actor in trade, developmental policy and peace and security. The EU is presently the ‘world’s largest trading entity’, enjoying 20% of global trade and has also emerged as a ‘global actor’ in the field of developmental policy, consistently supporting humanitarian aid efforts, and becoming a major actor in North-South relations (Langenhove & Costea 2005:7-10). The EU also acts as a global actor in matters of ‘soft security’, acting as a ‘civilian power’ through the prevention of conflict through negotiations, interdependence and cooperation. (Langenhove & Costea 2005:10). Therefore, the EU in continually transforming and expanding itself to ensure its continued relevance has seen itself emerge as a global actor in trade, development and security policy.
Constructivism understands the world as a social system where states are social constructs which follow social rules, with beliefs, expectations and interpretations being inescapable variables (Hurd 2008:4). Constructivists assume that reality is always constructed through social perceptions and actions, and behavior is based on expectations and pre-existing beliefs. In contrast, realism focuses on ‘power, anarchy and order’ (Ikenberry 2009:204), positing that the international system in inherently anarchical, with states being the main actors and power taken understood as military capabilities. Uncertainty in the system means states remain unitary, rational actors with the primary goal of survival. Where constructivism focuses on the primacy of ideas, liberalism emphasises ‘society, interdependence and progressive change’ (Ikenberry 2009:204). While liberalists agree that the internal characteristics of states matter, they focus not on norms but rather the interdependence between states, with the political economy seen as motivator of state behavior (Ikenberry 2009:211). Liberalism asserts that it is rules and institutions which overcome the problem of anarchy, therefore states have incentives to overcome security dilemmas by ‘binding together in co-operative security pacts’ (Ikenberry 2009:216).
The EU has emerged as a global actor due to its enlargement policy, which bestows on the EU the capabilities of strategic action and the world’s largest market. Constructivism is well-suited to analysing the pursuit of enlargement as EU foreign policy, positing that ‘ideas and discourses shape integration preferences and the negotiated outcomes of European integration’ (Schimmelfennig 2112:42 in Pollack 2015:23). As such, the decision to pursue enlargement is largely shaped by EU discourse in a process of ‘rhetorical entrapment’ (Pollack 2015:21-2). The phenomenon of ‘Europeanisation’ reveals how the EU influences national institutions and policies to ensure alignment to EU norms and values through accession conditionality. The EU is hence able to gradually transform the international system by exporting its values and norms through its foreign and trade policies. The EU’s normativity hence leads it to ‘pursue milieu goals over possession goals’ through the redesign of the international system aimed at ‘Europeanising’ the world rather than the short-term pursuit of immediate self-interests (Tonra 2008:19). As Manners states, the EU is ‘a changer of norms in the international system’, not by what it says or does, but by what it is (Tonra 2008:19). Constructivists also highlight how the EU follows the logic of appropriateness, evidenced through the continued pursuit of enlargement despite “enlargement fatigue” as the EU sees itself as having a historic obligation to these countries, and desires to achieve its vision of a single, united Europe (Tonra 2008:19). Europe thus ‘brings a unique kind of power…the power of attraction’ (Kagan in Tonra 2008:20). Constructivism thus explains the emergence of the EU as a normative actor driven by values and identity instead of interests in its foreign policy.
Furthermore, constructivism can be applied as an overarching theoretical framework in analysing the EU’s global actorness and its self-identification (Chebakova 2009:6). The centrality of values and norms to EU foreign and security policy is evident through the European Security Strategy, “Secure Europe in a Better World”, which articulates the concept of Europe, indicating what Europe ‘thinks’ of itself, its surrounding environment and of other actors in the international system (Chebakova 2009:6). The language of the ESS is further reflective of the EU as “inevitably a global player”, a “credible and effective actor” that is responsible for “building a better world” (Chebakova 2009:2). In applying a new language to foreign policy, constructivism reveals how the EU as a civilian power has a unique impact and identity, not only wanting to act coherently, but to act in the right way. The EU’s self-proclaimed role as a value and norm-oriented actor, influenced by its desire to be a “force for good in the world”, means the EU inevitably has a special relationship with the global South and continually stresses the responsibility they have to ensure the development of these countries. As such, the EU is motivated to become the world leader in developmental aid as a result of the way it sees itself, and the way it acts as a normative exporter of values and beliefs (Tonra 2008:13).
Constructivism in focusing on polity formation through rules and norms reveal how ideas create institutions through which the EU enacts its foreign policy. Through an examination of political processes within the second pillar as long-term transformations, Chebakova argues that the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) allows for the ‘diffusion of institutional models, the internalization of norms’ and the ‘possibility of convergence around similar models and norms, and homogenization of world politics’ (2009:12). The CFSP demonstrates how ideas can create an institution ‘that has no analogy in the IR sphere’, with created institutions having the capability to constrain actors’ behaviours and gradually constitute their views and preferences in the international system. With the CFSP aimed at the creation of a common European identity in foreign policy, it cannot be assumed that actors are egoistical and self-centred since if this were so, member-states would have no need to create and legitimise the CFSP (Chebakova 2009:11). The establishment of the ‘European Defence Agency as a top-down approach to managing European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP)’ further strengthens the claim that EU states largely define their foreign policy positions in relation to collectively determined values and goals, acting on these positions through joint statements and actions and increasingly delegating these policies to EU institutions (Chebakova 2009:12). Constructivism thus explains how these norms and ideas create new actors and interests, allowing for the EU to act as a global power insofar as the externalisation of its internal policies at the global level transforms the international arena (Wallace et al., 2015:476 ).
In contrast to constructivism, realism posits that the emergence of the EU as a global power should be understood as an attempt by Europe to balance against US hegemony. Through an emphasis on the dominance of national over European policies, realists argue that the EU is simply an instrument for fostering national interests by acting as a ‘multiplier’ of member-states’ influence and power. This reiterates the realist view that states only enter into international cooperation in pursuit of relative gains. However, there remain several problems with realism in terms of its pessimistic nature, its disregard for norms and institutions, and its emphasis on states as the primary actors in the international system (Swisa 2011:127). Realism’s focus on the state as the primary actor in international relations and failure to account for variability in threats and state preferences prevents an understanding of the EU’s unique identity and impacts on the international system. Moreover with its focus on interests, realism fails to account for the logic of appropriateness that governs EU actions. Realists also disregard the role of institutions and ideologies in the international system, emphasising that ‘only the “realities” of power competition matter’ (Russett et al. 1990:216 in Swisa 2011:128). The realist understanding of survival as the basis for states’ rational decision-making thus fails to analyse the long-term transformational impact of the EU. Therefore, realism pales in comparison to constructivism in its scope of explanation.
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Understanding liberalism as an umbrella for theoretical concepts, this essay will focus on LI as explanation for the rise of the EU as a global actor. LI has been a ‘forceful explanatory tool’ regarding EU policy and has also produced important insights into understanding European trade policy, revealing how the bargaining position of the Union in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is strongly influenced by strong domestic pressure groups within powerful Member States (Bendiek & Cardwell 2012:44). However, LI is less helpful for understanding change, instead positing policy outcomes as resulting from fixed and constant economic preferences guided by a ‘rationalist framework’ of international cooperation (Wallace et al 2015:18). The focus on the material also means LI remains ‘insensitive to non-economic issues’ such as those surrounding member-states’ security and development (Bendiek & Cardwell 2012:44). In building upon a ‘rational-choice theory of institutional choice’, LI ignores the role and importance of EU institutions in holding member states accountable and bringing about consensus, instead understanding these processes as a result of states pooling or delegating their sovereignty and bargaining amongst themselves (Wallace et al, 2015:18).
While constructivism may be the most convincing theoretical explanation for the rise of Europe as a global actor, constructivism is not without shortcomings. Moravscik argues that constructivism has failed to make any significant contribution to the study of the EU’s emergence as a global actor insofar as it remains unwilling to place its claims ‘at any real risk of empirical disconfirmation’ (Pollack 2001:235). Furthermore, constructivism in emphasising norms and values renders as secondary the power relations and strategic considerations of the actors involved (Saurugger 2013:896), neglecting state interests and material factors in its explanation. However, constructivism remains most convincing as it allows for an analysis of how the Union is ‘constituted, constructed and represented internationally’ (Tonra 2008:13). In moving beyond the essentialist, positivist and rationalist discourse predispositions offered by liberalism and realism, constructivism evaluates the EU’s international identity as an ‘ongoing contestation of complex, multiple (and) relational identities’, wholly unlike that of a conventional Westphalian state (Tonra 2008:13). Moreover, constructivist definitions of institutions allows for an understanding of their more profound and important effects, which rational-choice approaches fail to grasp (Pollack 2001:234). Hence, the ‘broader and deeper ontology’ which constructivism is based on offers a broader range of social ontologies than the rationalist approaches of realism and liberalism (Christiansen et al. in Pollack 2001:234). Constructivism hence emerges as the most convincing theoretical explanation for the emergence of the EU as a global actor.
In the final analysis, the real-world capacity of the EU to shape events outside its borders, by its own volition and in response to external forces must be understood in terms of norms and not just material fact. While constructivism is the most convincing explanation, it cannot be the sole explanation. The focus on beliefs, identities and norms, opens new avenues for examining the EU’s international capacity. Therefore, the norm-based account of the EU offered by constructivism addresses the weaknesses of the more instrumental, rationality-based modes of a realist/liberal synthesis, and in challenging the narrower worldview held by these approaches, constructivism offers a broad and nuanced explanation for the rise of the EU as a global actor.
- Bendiek, A. & Cardwell, P.J., 2012. European Realism in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. In EU External Relations Law and Policy in the Post-Lisbon Era. The Hague, The Netherlands: T. M. C. Asser Press, pp. 35–57.
- Chebakova, A. (2009). Theorizing the EU as a global actor. Ottawa: Carleton University.
- Hurd, E.S., 2008. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Ikenberry, G.J. (2009) ‘Liberalism in a Realist World: International Relations as an American Scholarly Tradition’, International Studies, 46 (1&2): 203-19.
- Pollack, M.A., 2001. International Relations Theory and European Integration. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 39(2), pp.221–244.
- Swisa, Maya (2011) “Future Stability in the European Union: Realism, Constructivism, and Institutionalism,” Claremont-UC Undergraduate Research Conference on the European Union: Vol. 2011, Article 11.
- Tonra, Ben. (2009). The European Union as a Global Actor. SSRN Electronic Journal. Accessed: 29 October 2018
- Van Langenhove, Luk & Costea, Ana-Cristina. (2007). The EU as a Global Actor and the Emergence of ‘Third Generation’ Regionalism.
- Wallace, H., Pollack, M.A. & Young, A.R., 2015. Policy-making in the European Union 7th edition., Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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