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The Credibility of the EU’s Normative Power in the Development Agenda

Much scholarly literature has been written about the nature of EU’s foreign policy actions. With regards to the development agenda, the EU has often been considered a strong normative power given its first order standing in the amount of foreign aid delivered through its Aid for Trade program. As such, When the EU acts in the position of the “leading advocate and the world’s biggest source of aid for trade”[1], it re-instantiates the ideals of the free trade regime and the accompanied prospects for greater development, allowing the Union to “present and legitimate itself as being more than the sum of its parts”[2].

However, when taken out of its structure of world politics and examined on its own merits, there exists sufficient evidence to argue that the EU is not a strong normative power given the conditions that Manners defined in his 2009 piece – The EU’s Normative Power in Changing World Politics. In it, Manners argues that “the concept of normative power, in its ideal or purest form, is ideational rather than material or physical … [which suggests] that its use involves normative justification rather than the use of material incentives or physical force”[3]. However, central to this definition is a three-part criteria in order for actors to claim that their foreign policies carry the weight of ‘normative justification’. As Manners goes on to argue, these are, “legitimacy of principles in world politics … from previously established international conventions, treaties or agreements; … Coherence of principles … from the extent to which differing principles, and practices to promote them can be seen to be sound and non-contradictory; … [and] consistency of principles … from the extent to which differing principles, and practices and practices to promote them, are uniform – both within and without the promoting entity – and are applied uniformly[4].

However, when examined under the framework that Manners provides, the EU’s Aid for Trade Program in its relationship with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) group of states fails to fulfill two of the the above-mentioned criteria, the evidence for which is examined below.

Legitimacy of Principles in World Politics

First and foremost,  the EU’s Aid for Trade agenda does fulfill the first of the three criteria given its strong commitment to the norms of the neoliberal free trade agenda codified in rules, practices, and beliefs of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). With an internal logic based on the conception that increased development in less developed countries (LDCs) breeds an increased capacity for trade which in turn breeds greater development, the motivation for the EU’s Aid for Trade program is well backed by existing scholarship that trace their roots to the fathers of the modern free-trade system. Studies in this area have empirically proven that “heightened trade will, in general, lead to greater diffusion and faster knowledge growth and hence, to faster per capita output growth … [an effect that] is greater the more countries”[5] participate. Grounded in universally accepted principles of free trade, the EU’s Aid for Trade agenda fulfills the first of Manner’s criteria in order for the actions of an international body to hold the normative justification required of normative power. This however, does not apply well to the other two principles.

Coherence of Policy and Intent

The EU’s failure to achieve coherence between its principles and practices comes largely in part from the disjoint between its policies and the strategic intent that may be linked to them. In the Cotonou Agreement reached between the EU and ACP states in 2000, the solidification of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) were seen by many analysts as an attempt to deny LDCs of the option to pursue policies that run contrary to the Union’s economic interests. One study under the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa finds that “any benefits that EPAs are expected to generate for ACP countries are unlikely to materialize spontaneously or instantaneously. … [Its] main conclusion … [being] that full reciprocity will be very costly for Africa irrespective of how the issue is looked at”[6]. Moreover as another study by Morrissey et al. (2007) notes, “at face value, EPAs offer little to ACP countries. Least-developed ACP countries already qualify for preferential access under the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative. These least developed would be granting tariff-free access to the EU in return for preferences to which they are already entitled”[7]. This misalignment between the policy intentions and the outcome thus de-legitimized the EU’s Aid for Trade agenda thus weakening its normative power in the development agenda.

Consistency of Demands

The inconsistency of the EU’s demands and policy actions appear to stem largely from economic interests that, based on an analysis of the EU-ACP development agenda, take higher priority to its normative development pursuits. As Van Risen (2007) argues, the “EU’s development co-operation has, in the new millennium, been continuously under the pressure of subordination to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and of being linked to other external priorities”[8]. One example that showcases the inconsistency of the EU’s demands revolves around its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In this instance,  the EU appears to be pushing for greater trade liberalization in its establishment of EPAs with the ACP states. However, it continues to hold on to its CAP which has had “a deleterious impact upon many developing countries”[9] and continues to be one of the main bones of contention in the Doha Round[10].

Future of the EU’s Development Agenda

In conclusion, I once again reiterate my stand that the EU is not a strong normative power due to its failure to fulfil the criteria required to be ‘convincing’ or ‘attractive’ in its “normative justification”. This is a result of the incoherence between the policies of the EU and its strategic intents; and an inconsistency between its demands and practices reflected in its actions both within and without the organisation.

However, the weakness of the EU’s normative power does not preclude it from being able to achieve its stated and operative goals in the sphere of development provision. As shown by the evidence of the case study above, the EU is more than capable of using material incentives to pursue its goals.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the EU is without competition in providing development aid to developing countries particularly in the ACP region. Rising power like China have also begun to establish relationships with the ACP states although its interests are less norms based than that of the EU. Notwithstanding this, given the multifaceted order of international relations today where the EU has to negotiate with stronger rising powers and competitors, having normative power will give the EU greater bargaining leverage especially since the relationship with its partners will be based on consensus based understanding of shared norms and values rather than divergent interests.

 (Aaron Tham)


[1] Permanent Mission of the European Union to the World Trade Organisation, “EU Aid for Trade,” http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/wto/eu_wto/eu_aid_for_trade/index_en.htm (Accessed 28 March, 2014)

[2] Ian Manners, “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?,” Journal of Common Market Studies 40, no. 2 (2002): 244.

[3] Ian Manners, “The EU’s Normative Power in Changing World Politics,” In Normative Power Europe in a Changing World: A Discussion, ed. André Gerrits, (The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, 2009):  11-12.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Dan Ben-David and Michael B. Loewy, “Free Trade, Growth, and Convergence.” Journal of Economic Growth 3, no. 2 (1998): 144.

[6] Stephen Karingi, Rémi Lang, Nassim Oulmane, Romain Perez, Mustapha Sadni Jallab, and Hakim Ben Hammouda, “Economic and Welfare Impacts of the EU-Africa Economic Partnership Agreements.” African Trade Policy Centre Work in Progress Paper No. 10, March 2005, http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/publications/atpc-wp10.pdf (Accessed 28 March, 2014).

[7] Oliver Morrissey, Chris Milner, and Andrew McKay, “A Critical Assessment of Proposed EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements,” EU Development Policy in a Changing World: Challenges for the 21st Century, ed. Andrew Mold, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007): 200.

[8] Mirjam Van Reisen, “The Enlarged European Union and the Developing World: What Future?,” EU Development Policy in a Changing World: Challenges for the 21st Century, ed. Andrew Mold (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007): 60.

[9] Stephen R. Hurt, “Understanding EU Development Policy: History, Global Context and Self-Interest?,” Third World Quarterly 31, no. 1(2010): 165.

[10] Bernard M. Hoekman, and Michel M. Kostecki, The Political Economy of the World Trading System: Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 285.



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