European Enlargement: A Normative Perspective

By Benjamin Walton
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

It was commonplace among academics of the 1970s to share an understanding of the frozen nature of international relations during the Cold War period, and to hold similar assumptions about the fixed character of the nation-state and the importance of direct military power in strengthening the international society.1 However, the Cold War, which structured many of these assumptions, ended with the collapse of norms across Central Europe rather than through the employment of force.2 Therefore, a better understanding of the European Union’s (EU) role today might be attained by reflecting on what the revolutions in Eastern Europe tell us about the influence of ideas – in other words the role of normative power.

For the purpose of this essay, a norm is ‘a principle or standard of correctness that reflects people’s expectation of behaviour, is binding upon the members of a group, and serves to regulate action’.3 What I am suggesting here is that the EU represents neither a civilian power of an intergovernmental nature utilising economic tools and international diplomacy, nor a military power of a supranational nature using armed force and international intervention. Rather than being trapped in what William Wallace described as a ‘supranationalintergovernmental dichotomy’ and forced to conform to one conceptual model or another, the EU is a normative power of an ideational nature characterised by common principles and a willingness to discard notions of ‘state’ or ‘international’.4

The concept of normative power is an attempt to move analysis away from the empirical emphasis on the EU’s institutions or policies, and towards cognitive processes with both substantive and symbolic components.5 Consequently, the notion of ‘normative power Europe’ is located in discussions of ‘ideological’ power and the desire to move beyond the debate over state-like features through an understanding of the EU’s international identity. Johan Galtung argues that ideological power is ‘powerful because the ‘power-senders’ ideas penetrate and shape the will of the ‘power-recipient’ through the medium of norms.6 The thesis I purpose, therefore, is that through enlargement and the diffusion of democratic norms, the EU is able to present and legitimise itself as being more than the sum of its parts. In the post-Cold War era, it is no longer enough for the EU to present itself as “merely” a form of civil or military power. For that reason, EU enlargement is vital to spread and maintain conceptions of “normal” in international relations, giving the EU credibility, power and status.

I intend to reach my conclusion by separating the article into two sections. The first will draw attention to democratic norms as a form of governance, used by the EU to construct and justify its status within the international system, and providing the EU with an identity and a source of normative power. This will be achieved by analysing the notions of liberty, rights and the rule of law; and how these are implemented both domestically and internationally. The second will examine democratic norms as a form of economics, creating and sustaining a liberal market economy and providing the EU with solidarity and cohesion.

Norms as a Form of Governance

Normative values clearly have a historical context to them; peace and liberty were defining features of Western European politics in the immediate post-Second World War period and the norms of democracy, the rule of law and human rights grew later when it was important to distinguish democratic Western Europe from communist Eastern Europe. These became essential features of the transition from communist rule in the immediate post-Cold War period as the Copenhagen criteria demonstrated.7 Accordingly, the belief in and adherence to liberal democratic norms are the fundamental principles that constitute the EU. They ‘define legitimate statehood and rightful state action in the domestic as well as the international realm’.8 The norms are not simply declaratory aims of a system of governance (such as the preamble to republican constitutions), but represent crucial constitutive features of a polity which creates its identity as being more than a state.

It could be upheld that concepts such as democracy, civil society and rights-based political culture, born in Europe and integrated elsewhere, are key to understanding ‘from outside … what is classed as European’.9 It is from this identity that the EU is able to establish credibility and status within the international realm. Drawing on critical social theories, one framework has seen the EU as adding a common ‘principled’ dimension to Europeans’ multifaceted identities.10 This relates closely to the concept of the EU as a ‘normative model’, possessing little concrete material means of influence, but with significant ‘soft power’ deriving from the credibility of its identity as a beacon for certain distinctive values and norms.11

Consequently, it is evident that, through enlargement, the EU will influence the discourse of its members and maintain solidarity within its region. Toby King argues that the promotion of norms by the EU has often been constrained by radical differences in the bilateral relations and international interests of its member states.12 As a consequence, extending the norms to other areas may prove problematic. However, in predicting the diminishing role of states, it is evident that the power the EU possesses in setting standards for upholding liberal democratic norms overshadows national interest.

It may well be maintained that the EU must be an empirical force for the international diffusion of democratic norms, or it will be more or less the victim of power politics run by powers stronger and more cohesive than itself.13 Nevertheless, the purpose of enlargement is not to exercise power through force, but to exert power through norms and to convert its standards into international rules by providing incentives to do so. Europe, therefore, is structurally inclined to impose norms on the world system in order to counter its inherent lack of power – in the sense of hard power – and to maintain its status.

The EU needs to spread its norms through enlargement and diffusion as to advance its own interest and get the support of the international system. Although questions persist about the ability of the EU to exert any real influence without the backing of military force, others contend that it is precisely such “soft diplomacy” that allows the EU to export its values around the world.14 Rather than focusing on material capabilities, the EU’s real power is ideational - the ability to shape the concept of ‘normal’ in international relations.15

In the domestic realm, the liberal principles of social and political order – societal pluralism, the rule of law, as well as democratic political participation – are derived from and justified by EU norms. From a normative prospective, socialisation is the primary mechanism through which inter-subjective structures are transformed into individual preferences and action.16 As a result of successful socialisation, the values and norms that constitute the EU are internalised by its members. Individual actors become socialised into institutionally defined roles, learn norms and rules associated with these roles, and act appropriately by fulfilling their obligations.17 The “democratic peace theory”, which has its roots in the domestic norms of liberal democratic states, demands that political conflicts be managed and resolved without violence and on the basis of constitutional procedures.18

When conflicts arise, democratic states know that all actors are committed to these common values and norms which enable them to develop mutual trust and dependable expectations of peaceful behaviour. EU enlargement, therefore, is necessary for implementing these micro-mechanisms, with the intention of establishing credibility and solidarity amongst its member states. Having produced a normative and ethical framework for relations within Europe, the EU could then utilise its normative stance to project its framework externally, constituting a normative power on the world stage with the intention of promoting peaceful coexistence.19

Norms as a Form of Economics

The concept of normative power suggests that not only is the EU constructed on a normative basis, but that this predisposes it to act in a normative way in international relations. Hence, the EU as a normative power has a positive quality to it – that it takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and economic relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for implementing such norms.20 Accordingly, the EU must establish a foundation of liberal economic norms for the management of global economics, and has the task of ensuring that member states do not destabilise international order by challenging these norms.

In an economic sense, the EU’s actions may be more complex than the normative power framework lets on. Richard Young acknowledges that ‘the EU may exercise normative power, but often for instrumental – not value-driven – purposes’. Instead, he finds that norms may simply ‘cloak’ other motives to ‘increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of external policies’.21 From this standpoint, the purpose of the EU’s normative power is substantively different than expressed in the beginning of this piece, perhaps even calling into question the concept itself. The EU’s norms that are expressed, however, coincide with its strong support for democracy as a form of governance, and most notably with its commitment to multilateral institutions within which it seeks to enhance normative standards.22 Additionally, the spreading of liberal democratic norms offers two benefits to its recipients. On the one hand, it promises them a degree of economic freedom; on the other, it offers the potential for economic prosperity. As a result, enlargement has a potential to enhance the EU’s performance legitimacy by means of spreading democratic norms, thereby qualifying for increased support and approval from amongst its citizens and acting to maintain the EU’s credibility, power and status.

Within the EU, the scope of any cooperation and integration between member states can only be as wide as the members agree upon. Since the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community of 1957, there has been an understanding between the member states that the Common Market and the Single European Market should be the core of the Union. The main foundations of the market are the “four freedoms” of movement – of goods, persons, services and capital.23 This was reaffirmed by the Lisbon European Council in March 2000, where it was declared that ‘the EU has today set itself a new strategic goal for the next decade; to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’.24 Accordingly, the spreading of economic norms through enlargement makes the EU market bigger and hence more important in the multilateral trading system. In stark contrast to the economic norms, other theories of EU politics include a key role for material interests. Some have claimed that the EU does not find its raison d’être in a set of collective normative ideals, but rather it is one whose internal and external relations are firmly anchored in the material interests of its member states.25

By making material interests the default option, it has been suggested that states comply with norms primarily when it will be to their material benefit; compliance lacks compelling purpose otherwise.26 As a result, normative power will exercise greater influence on members’ policy positions when material interests are negligible or outweighed by prominent normative concepts. However, the recent growth in transnational flows has created interdependent modern societies which have altered the traditional conception of material based interests.27 As a result, states do not only seek material objectives, but are also inspired by ideological aspirations. Consequently, it is the purpose of enlargement to further implement liberal democratic norms for the purpose of maintaining cohesion and unity among its members.


Since the creation of the European Community (EC) – in which Europeans were committed to ‘pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty’ – the EC/EU has managed to evolve into a hybrid of supranational and international forms of governance which transcends Westphalian norms.28 It is, according to Richard Mansbach, a ‘cross-cutting polity which is part of a strikingly different and more complex picture than traditional models of global politics allow, including less of a distinction between inside and outside the Westphalian state’.29 This specific new form of hybridity, the likes of which Mansbach is describing, increasingly emphasises certain norms which are common among its member states, and ultimately act as binding principles upon their actions. The constitution of the EU as a political entity thereafter has largely occurred as an elite-driven, treatybased legal order.30 It was precisely the combination of the EU as a hybrid polity, its political-legal constitution and the historical context from which it was born that enables the EU to represent itself as a normative power in international relations and formulate its own identity.

The liberal democratic norms of democracy, rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights were first made explicit in the 1973 Copenhagen Declaration on European Identity.31 Since then, the norms do not only act to regulate state behaviour but also contribute to shaping actors’ identities and interests, transcending the traditional limitations of states and international society. For that reason, states that share the fundamental values of the EU and adhere to its basic norms are regarded as informal community members and are entitled to join. Similarly, it is through the creation of economic norms and market based economies that the EU has been able to establish a foundation for the management of global economics. This will assist the EU in maintaining its normative stance as an inspiration for certain distinctive values and norms. It will also ensure that, through enlargement, the EU will directly influence the discourse of its members – through the creation of market economies – maintaining unity within.

Enlargement, therefore, is necessary for implementing these norms, with the intention of establishing cohesion amongst its member states. Having produced a normative and ethical framework for relations within Europe, the EU can utilise its normative stance to project its framework externally through enlargement, constituting a normative power on the world stage – bestowing the EU with credibility, power and status.


  1. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’ JMCS, 40, (2002), p. 238.
  2. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’ , p. 239.
  3. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: The International Role of the EU’ The European Union between International and World Society (2001), p. 25.
  4. Wallace, W. ‘Collective Governance: The EU Political Process’, Policy-making in the European Union 4th edn. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 528.
  5. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’, p. 239.
  6. Galtung, J. The European Community: A Superpower in the Making (London, Allen and Unwin, 1973), p. 58.
  7. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: The International’, p. 11.
  8. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’, p. 239.
  9. Youngs, R. ‘Normative Dynamics and Strategic Interests in the EU’s External Identity’ Journal of Common Market Studies 4 (2004), p. 417.
  10. Youngs, R. ‘Normative Dynamics’, p. 418.
  11. Anderson, P. The Question of Europe (London, Verso books, 1997), p. 378.
  12. Erickson, J, L. ‘Normative Power and EU Arms Transfer Policy: A Theoretical Critique and Empirical Test’ Discussion paper SP IV (2008), p, 22.
  13. Youngs, R. ‘Normative Dynamics’, p. 421.
  14. Anderson, P. The Question of Europe (London, Verso books, 1997), p. 380.
  15. Erickson, J, L. ‘Normative Power’, p. 29.
  16. Schimmelfennig, F. ‘The Double Puzzle of EU Enlargement: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Decision to Expand to the East’ Paper Presented at the ECSA Sixth Biennial International Conference, Pittsburgh (1999), p 21.
  17. Schimmelfennig, F. ‘The Double Puzzle’, p.21.
  18. Wallace, W. ‘Collective Governance’, p. 531.
  19. Hill, C. International Relations and the European Union (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005), p.33.
  20. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: The International’, p. 13.
  21. Erickson, J, L. ‘Normative Power’, p. 21.
  22. Laidi, Z. EU Foreign Policy in a Globalised World (Oxon, Routledge, 2008), p.12.
  23. Nugent, N. European Union Enlargement (Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 133.
  24. Nugent, N. European Union, p. 133.
  25. Erickson, J, L. ‘Normative Power’, p. 18.
  26. Erickson, J, L. ‘Normative Power’, p. 18.
  27. Hill, C. International Relations, p 38.
  28. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’, p. 240.
  29. S Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’, p. 240.
  30. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction’, p. 241.
  31. Manners, I. ‘Normative Power Europe: The International’, p. 13.

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