The European Union: Powerful or Influential?

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By Justine Horta

The role of the European Union in the world is an old issue, and before the European Community was founded the same issue applied to Europe. In 2013 Bastien Nivet, Doctor in Political Science and Professor at the Paris School of Management, posed this question in one of his articles, entitled “La puissance ou l’influence? Un détour par l’expérience européenne”. Even though it was written 10 years ago, some insights and observations about the EU are still valid. We often associate power and influence, but in fact these are two different ways of creating relationships. Distinguishing them is helpful because they tell us how a country or institution can make itself worthy on the international scene.

Today the balance of powers is changing, and this means that states could change their influence over the world, and so the path of History. During the Cold War and its first years of life, the European Union was referred to as “Europe-puissance”, implying that the future ahead of the new-born institution was that of a superpower, like the USA and the Soviet Union. Over the decades the Union set itself apart as an example of peace and prosperity, but in the last few years its reputation has changed. Some call it the “decline and fall of Europe’’. Indeed, over the last years the Union struggled to shape itself as a strategic actor. So, can the European Union go back to being the “Europe-puissance” it was up until half a century ago? Is it still capable of offering the solution to tensions in the world, like it did during the Cold War?

Power and influence

Power is measured through classical intervention mechanisms such as the economy, the diplomatic actions or military power, exerted directly and coercively. Influence refers to the capacity of one actor to make its view prevail over the rest, or to produce change using alternative tools in a non-coercive manner. These two concepts refer to a different way in which a country can put itself within a relationship. Bastien Nivet identifies three forms of power that can characterise a specific institution or state’s politics.

The first way the European Union can be referred to is “structural power”. The EU has changed international relationships forever because it has stepped away from the traditional power tools. States usually invest in “resource power” to shine, they focus on the economy and democracy. Differently, the EU focused on structural power, meaning that it invested in its capacity to create and promote its own international structures to sustain its outside appeal. After World War II the EU created institutions and tribunals in order to effectively protect its rights and the newly found peace. As a matter of fact, we hadn’t had war for 70 years before the Ukraine War. It was the first time in History that an international actor could play a role on the international level without the classical tools of power, but just exerting its influence.

The second way the Union is referred to is as “civilian power” of the Union. This means that the EU was able to exert its power through peaceful tools such as trade, cooperation, and law, avoiding military power. Again, this was never seen before.

The last and third way the EU is defined is “normative power”. This means the US is able to define, establish, and manage international norms. In this case what we are really talking about is “influence’’ because voluntary coercion, and not imposed, is in place. The EU does not really have the capacity to impose anything on any state, yet its norms are taken into account on an international level. 

After having defined these differences, it is possible to affirm that the EU is more of an influential actor than a powerful one according to Nivet’s definitions. So why do we still look for the power of the EU in the world?

The power balance

In the past, talking about European power was a political strategic move to make the new European Union legitimate in the eyes of the world and a possible third bloc within the US and the Soviet Union. The place of the Union in the world was rapidly asserted – it became “powerful” because it was able to introduce change in the power balance. But things changed at the beginning of the 2000s with the rise of China. Since the power of one makes the weakness of the others, the rise of China as a world power led to the fall of the EU’s economic power. The strength the EU kept having was that of peacekeeping, but this is questioned today as well because of the Ukraine situation. The appeal of the EU is fading.

To be honest, according to some scholars the EU never had power for the fact that it never made use of the tools of power. It did not because of structural reasons (there is no European army), and political reasons (Europe is not all part of the European Union). But most of all for Nivet the EU is devoid of the will to power. The goal of the EU is to make the world evolve according to its view, not to become a power able to act in the world.

The capacity of the EU to succeed

According to Nivet’s opinion, the international actions of the 21st century should be based on influence, and not power. Even though it worked for 70 years, today the EU has been facing many serious challenges, in particular the migration crisis, the climate crisis,and the energy crisis due to the War in Ukraine. If the EU has ever been able to climb to the top, it will be able to do this again, by changing relationships again. Nevertheless, for some scholars the EU will never be able to become a power because it is just not able to deploy the classic power tools. For example, it will never be a fully normative power because it is not a federal state. This confirms that the EU is destined and condemned to be influential and not powerful. This could be a problem if we think that the EU is not reaching satisfactory outcomes. The 21st century should not be the end of the EU.

However, the EU could have a  chance to get better since the power balance is changing again. Unfortunately the EU still lacks power-based tools, but gaining power could be a first step. The war in Ukraine is an opportunity for the EU to climb up again. Its support to Ukraine can make the difference, since now the Western world has come together again. Right now it’s investing in more than 77 countries in the world. Those are in fact tools of power and not only of influence. In the end, it is not only a question of power and influence, but if the European Union will be able to reinvent a way of managing new international relations the way it did over 70 years ago.