Events & News


The European Union (EU) as an international actor: unique or ordinary?

Professor Jan Zielonka, Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony’s College

19 May 2011

Amphi Mork, Ground Floor, INSEAD Asia Campus, 1 Ayer Rajah Avenue, Singapore 138676



Is the European Union (EU) really as unique as political scientists make it out to be? As Prof Zielonka argues, not when it is analysed in terms of power politics and empire. He compared the EU’s external policy with that of the United States, Russia and China, other “contemporary empires”, focusing on their 1) prime interests, 2) key sources of power, 3) essence of civilising mission and 4) shape of governance. While the differences reveal much about the exercise of power today, such differences, he noted, can lead to the opinion that the EU is not that unique after all when compared to the other major players in geopolitics.

On the surface, this makes for a peculiar comparison, as the EU is set apart from the others by its very nature; in a common estimation, not least from the Union itself, it is sui generis. To those who already had doubts about such a comparison, he began by explaining that comparing a political union with states should not be discounted entirely, because states are not that identical to begin with. In any case, he focused on how these actors practiced politics in the international arena – the different ways in which their imperial natures are played out on the global stage and their geopolitical ambitions. China, the United States and Russia were chosen because these actors were the largest and most influential actors in international politics in the current age, and size certainly matters as they are sources of power. What is more important though is how such power is applied politically on the international stage.

One characteristic that sets the EU apart, and which explains its nature when acting internationally, is in its structural arrangement. Unlike the others, the EU is not a state, and as such does not have the characteristics states usually have, such as a defined centre of authority, which is why it has to rely more on flexible governance arrangements. In normative terms though, the EU is actually rather similar to the other states compared, as they all have civilising missions with accompanying legitimising strategies, although the nature of them are very different from each other. In his opinion, the EU is not unique in thinking it is a force for good, and is similar to the three other actors, who all justify their actions in noble terms. By using these strategies, they have been able to manipulate the politics of states which are supposed to be independent.

Many observers point out the lack of a military and its decentralised nature as potential obstacles to the EU exerting its influence on the emerging international system, but Prof Zielonka does not see this as a liability. He explained that without a military, it is less feared and its decentralised nature helps it to deal with the diversity within its borders. Influence is exerted instead by constraining domestic action and by extending the acquis communataire, a set of binding rules that must be wholly adopted by candidate states in exchange for admission to the Union. Its strength lies in its attractiveness as a large market, and prospects of membership and market access. In extending its reach and influence, the periphery also gradually adopts EU norms and standards, especially states that enter into loose partnerships with the EU. Prof Zielonka calls this process a “more sophisticated kind of imperial politics” as it does not take away sovereignty but rather, constrains it through conditionality and other legal tools.

EU might be sui generis in nature, but it behaves just like any other state in the international arena, and despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of a central government and military, it still manages to project its ambitions and values exert influence beyond its borders, as well as constrain the decisions of states within its borders. Prof Zielonka concluded by saying that the EU, the United States, China and Russia are all not that different, and that because they compete in the same spaces and spheres, they adopt similar strategies, and that even though they might deny this, they all look, and behave like empires. Perhaps then, the EU should be judged with the same standards the behaviour of states like the United States, Russia, or China is judged by.