Normative power: fact or fiction?

boy holding European Union flag in front of European parliament in Strasbourg

Europe Day 2016 | Photograph © European Parliament


The European Union’s underlying foreign policy motivations are regularly questioned by policy experts and academics. The ongoing debate is between those who consider the EU to be a normative power through its international relations, and those who consider the EU is acting in order to reap its own benefits. The EU’s Energy Security Strategy and relationship with Azerbaijan, a country with a gloomy human rights record, perhaps indicate that underlying selfish motivations are driving EU behaviour. At the very least, does the EU portraying itself as a force for good create a misconception of its wider intentions?

Those who have supported the idea of the EU as a normative power suggest it has consistently supported and advocated policies that promote the greater good of its neighbourhood. For example, after speaking to a senior official from Brussels, I was told to, “look no further than the Nobel Peace Prize award for 2012” which was awarded for ‘over six decades of contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights’.  Also frequently referred to is the EU’s pursuit of the abolition of the death penalty universally since the 1980’s, something regarded as irrational, due to the political difficulties and lack of potential rewards chasing such policies creates. On the other hand, academics such as Rosa Balfour believe that the EU’s reputation as a promoter of human rights and democracy has been marred by uncertainty, contradictions and inconsistency.

The EU’s reputation as a normative foreign policy actor is heavily reliant on its compliance with policy rhetoric outlined within its own bilateral agreements. The gap between the pronouncement and pursuit of these policy objectives must be minimal in order for the EU’s normative reputation to remain intact. To test this, I looked at the European Neighbourhood Policy, which introduced the ‘more for more’ principle, aimed at offering greater economic, social and financial rewards to neighbourhood countries for demonstrating greater compliance with EU shared values – namely human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance. If compliance with these shared values increased, but rewards fell or stagnated, then EU compliance with its own policy rhetoric was violated, and other motivations were certainly present. This was my logic. The reverse argument was also explored.

Results from coding over fifty policy documents and sources, including by NGO’s such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch  , and highly respected academics such as Jacqueline Hale – provided frequent evidence against the normative power argument. Nowhere else was this point made more evident, than when exploring the EU’s relationship with Azerbaijan, a key actor and component to the Southern Gas Corridor project. For instance, the EU has been accused of only mildly criticising Azerbaijan’s human rights record, due to vested energy interests. Jacqueline Hale observed inconsistency in the pursuit of policy objectives, in which EU commitment to policy rhetoric on human rights and democracy was consistently outweighed by interests in Caspian energy.  Amnesty International observed that ‘strategic interests consistently prevailed over principled international criticism and engagement on widespread human rights violations’.

two protestors standing outside a building wearing masks and holding banners that say freedom of expression now

Protesters opposite the Azerbaijan embassy in London. The country has been criticised for imprisoning journalists and activists. | Photograph © George Torode


Other findings suggest that when material gains are to be made, the focus on promoting shared values fall. For example, the EU used its Energy Security Strategy as a means of diversifying its reliance on crude oil and natural gas away from Russia and Norway.

I should make it clear that I am not denying any normative intentions of the EU, but merely that the EU portraying itself as a force for good creates a misconception of its wider intentions. Due to the EU’s lack of coherence in its pronouncement and pursuit of policy objectives, its reputation as a promoter of human rights and democracy is coming under severe scrutiny, and the legitimacy of its foreign policy behaviour needs to be questioned.  I would suggest that the EU needs to live by example in order to seriously be considered a normative power, meaning that the EU must be both normatively coherent and consistent in its foreign policy approach, which hasn’t been the case since the introduction of the European Neighbourhood Policy.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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