What is the EU? This is a question that has occupied the debate in the European Union and beyond for many years. Of course the political significance of the question is high because it constitutes a precondition for interpreting its foreign policy action and hence to understand its role in global politics.
One way of addressing the question would simply be to associate the EU to the American superpower. The EU as the closer (and relatively loyal) ally of the US would be the answer. This way, however, the agency of the EU, its autonomy, would be denigrated, if not denied altogether. And yet, there have been hints of a EU autonomous political agency. It is for this reason that we cannot be satisfied with a simplistic response in terms of bandwagoning with the US.
Nor it is enough to just refer to striking boutades such as Kagan’s depiction of the EU as a Venus power (as opposed to, and in necessary reliance on, the US, a Mars power) or the by-now-famous description of the EU given by Eyskens, Foreign Minister of Belgium, in 1991 according to which Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. After twenty years there is still a grain of truth into that. The EU is still a very important economic actor in the global economy, to be precise in aggregate terms the EU is the largest economy in the world. The EU is still military weak in comparison with other great military powers and despite the fact that some of its members do have nuclear capabilities. Nonetheless, in political terms the EU has grown and has developed incisive policies that have had a significant impact worldwide. The most obvious example is of course the enlargement policy, possibly the most success policy of expansion of recent times, which is still somehow in progress through its neighbourhood policy and association agreements. More, the EU is also the first world donor for what concerns international cooperation and humanitarian aid. It is on the debate around this political dimension of the EU that this article is focussed.
The debate on the nature of the EU and EU foreign policy emerged in the ‘70s. Duchêne was the first intellectual who associated the general idea of civilian power to Europe thus giving life to an intense debate that has animated the political and academic community till our days. For civil power he means a political organization that pursues the domestication or normalization of international relations through the transformation of the controversies from international into domestic. For Duchêne the idea of civilian power implies the passage from international diplomacy to internal politics of contractual type. European politics should therefore be seen as a strategy of transformation of semi-legal inter-state relations into legal domestic relations.
Such transformation does not come into effect with traditional coercive instruments such as military intervention, but with what is today often defined as `soft power', that is a persuasive force implemented above all through cooptation, multilateral cooperation, economic integration, institution-building in terms of human right and democracy promotion, and the power of attraction. In particular, the European strategy of internalization is put into effect mainly through the instrument of the enlargement. With the progressive accession of the neighbouring countries, Europe succeeded in fact to modify the relations between the governments of the Member States and to create a common center of resolution of controversies.
However, many are those who criticised such empirical perspective. In 1982 Hedley Bull, for instance, considered the lack of military self-sufficiency a fatal limit for the European global ambitions. In order to fill this gap, Bull suggested to build a European power with nuclear armaments able to develop a relation of co-existence with USA and Soviet Union. Only towards the end of the ‘90s, with the elaboration of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) it has been possible to give a (still weak) answer to such kind of criticisms.
In the last ten years, a new perspective has been advance by Ian Manners, a Danish scholar, in terms of normative power Europe. In its simpler formulation the normative power of the EU refers to its institutional-ideological nature which predisposes it to act in a specific way. Accordingly, the normative power has to be primarily searched not in what the EU does or says, but in what the EU is. The normative prerogatives of the EU are in some sense unique (different from other similar aspirations of past empires) in that they are based on a specific historical context, a unique hybrid political form, and a political-legal constitution completely sui generis. For these reasons a number of principles like the principle of democracy, the rule of law, social justice and human rights are somehow intrinsic to the EU action, are costitutionalized regardless of a specific constitution. The respect of such norms has become an unavoidable condition for any internal action and a binding condition for any external action.
During the same period, a different interpretation of the EU has been advanced by a number of scholars in terms of EU as a sui generis empire. Two German scholars, Beck and Grande, formulated in 2005 a reading of the EU as a cosmopolitan empire. Their analysis concentrates from the beginning on the imperial political model intended as a form of exercise of the sovereignty whose main characteristic consists in stretching permanently to gain control on the non-controlled. Differently from the statist formula, in fact, the subordinates keep a margin of formal independence. “The empire as form of non-hegemonic political exercise of sovereignty does not rest, at least in the first instance, on the hierarchical `power to control', but on the added political value produced to the advantage of actors engaged in sustained consensus”.
The empire tries to resolve its internal problems with a continuous process of potentially unlimited expansion that renders its own borders changing by definition. However, it is distinct from the hegemonic order because it is integrated, and distinct from the world state because it is asymmetric. Imperial sovereignty entails thus an asymmetry of the forms and the rights of belongings and a differentiated integration that goes beyond the traditional hierarchical center-periphery relationship. The following table comparatively synthesizes the imperial model adopted by Beck and Grande.
The EU as a cosmopolitan empire is characterized according to Beck and Grande by the following constituent elements:
First, order of asymmetric sovereignty. Its members do not possess the same status and have consequently asymmetric rights and duties. Such formal inequality is essential in order to allow for the acknowledgment of diversity and heterogeneity inside the political integration. Four are the zones that structure the European empire: zone of full integration (e.g., the euro zone); zone of intense cooperation (e.g., domain within the first pillar: agriculture, competition, industry, research, technology, regional and environmental policies); zone of limited cooperation (e.g., domains within the second and third pillar: domestic and justice policy, foreign and security policy); zone of enlarged sovereignty (e.g., state candidates, associated states, etc.).
Second, open and variable space structure. There are no fixed borders insofar as the system is by nature dynamic and subject to continuous territorial change. The principle of political contingency has thus fallen back on the vertical (different institutional levels) and horizontal (different societies) interlacing, on the internal transformation of the states, on the movement of the territorial borders, and on the cultural and cosmopolitan pluralisation.
Third, multinational social structure. The multinational, multi-ethnic and multi-religious components inside the EU are not recomposed through the homogenization of a single and imposed culture, but through the acknowledgment of cosmopolitan pluralism. The European empire differs in this from the national state as it recognizes various national states in it.
Fourth, integration through law, consent, and cooperation. Differently from other past empires, the EU consolidates through law rather than force. Consent and cooperation of single members are never extorted with a coercive and violent power, but always by free choice beginning from the adhesion to the ratification of each treaty. In this way the taboo of the force is asserted, as this remains in the hands of the Member States. Consequently, who endures the decisions is also the one who has to implement such decisions.
Fifth, horizontal and vertical institutional integration. The European empire is characterized by a complex institutional structure. Horizontally, the system is divided in the different zones of political agency that generate various rights and duties according to the degree of integration. Vertically, the system is one of governance on different levels. The local, national and macro-regional levels are interlaced in a type of relation that is not simply of vertical hierarchy, but rather of continuous overlapping of competences.
Sixth, net power. The power to net of the European empire is characterized by a non-hierarchical form of the decisional process in which not only the European institutions, but also the subjects and the Member States, have decisional autonomy. Besides this, a great number of actors have political voice. In this way, decisional power becomes bargaining power, and the hierarchical power becomes net power. The crossing points, the nodes, become the true places of power. The traditional imperial structure based on center-periphery is overcame.
Seventh, cosmopolitan sovereignty. The concept of sovereignty is itself transformed inside the EU. From being absolute sovereignty becomes complex and cosmopolitan. Contrarily to traditional empires, the more one loses sovereignty the more one gets it: the more one gets integrated by renouncing to a number of prerogatives, the more one is endowed with a status of power. And on the contrary, the more one is far from the center and therefore formally sovereign, the less one remains sovereign.
Eight, ambivalence of abolishment and creation of borders. Like any other empire, also the EU tends to enlarging, but differently from other empires, the EU does not have universalistic ambitions. Consequently, if it is true that it has a tension towards the inclusion of new subjects, it is also careful to redefine its borders in exclusive way.
And finally, ninth, emancipatory cosmopolitism versus despotic cosmopolitism. The European empire ultimately shows a double nature regarding the version of cosmopolitanism that it adopts. If for Beck and Grande, cosmopolitism means acceptance of alterity, for the EU cosmopolitism is implemented in two contradictory ways. With emancipatory cosmopolitism, the European empire recognizes alterity by strengthening individual and collective autonomy. With despotic cosmopolitism, instead, the European empire asserts the differences but only in order to stabilise them through a control mechanism.
The perspective formulated by Beck and Grande suggests an important integration to the debate and makes possible to detect and interpret in a correct way the intrinsic expansionary nature of the EU.
In conclusion and taking stock of this long debate, we go back to the original question about the nature of the EU. To that question the answer cannot but be framed in terms of uniqueness. The EU is a sui generis actor that incorporates three logics of territoriality and in parallel three logics of collective government.
The first logic is the state-based understanding of politics that is centred on strictly delineated territory with fixed borders and is based on the idea of collective autonomy and national democracy.
The second logic is empire-centric. It entails fluid outer perimeters where boundaries are conceived more as borderlands or frontiers. Here the political logic refers to the notion of cosmopolitan democracy with its intrinsic dynamic of continuous inclusion of new members through human rights and democracy promotion.
The third logic is the nomadic attitude. Here territory has a fluid nature, it is rather a function of the flows. Crucial are the so-called flow-drivers such as railways, cyber-nodes, harbors, or financial centers that define the territorial extensions of the flows. The political principle here is the principle of transnational stakeholdership which goes beyond national boundaries, but does not necessarily entails a creation of formal public institutions on a cosmopolitan or global level. It is rather a system aligned with the transnationalization of social flows beyond the nation-state but not heading towards a global state, an “intersocial world” as the French scholar, Badie, would say.