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Explaining the EU’s “Model” Status in its Foreign Policy to Eradicate FGM: Supra-National Identity, Riding the Hegemonic Wave.


“Why is the European Union (EU) still regarded as a model power in its efforts to abolish Female Genital Cutting within the African continent in spite of the poor records that exists within the EU itself”? My thesis in response to this is made up of two distinct arguments. First, I argue that the “model” status is attributed to the EU partly because of its success in international lobbying and the commitment it has demonstrated towards abolishing female genital cutting globally. This argument examines how the EU is conceived primarily as a supra-national identity and the subsequent implications that it has in granting salience to its international successes vis-à-vis its domestic inadequacies. Second, I argue that EU’s “model” status also stems in part from its success in framing the act of female genital cutting as a Human Rights violation, thereby enabling the EU to utilize the hegemonic discourse of Human Rights as a normative basis for its commendation and positive regard in the international system.

With this in mind, I would begin my response by providing a brief account of the phenomenon along with its associated issues. I would also attempt to define the term “model power” and the value-laden distinctions inherent in labeling the act of genital cutting as a form of “mutilation” vis-à-vis “circumcision”. With these conceptual frameworks in place, I will attempt to highlight the incongruence between the EU’s international commendation and its poor domestic records, which is the “puzzle” in my research question. Lastly, I will attempt to articulate and substantiate the arguments in my thesis, which should provide distinctive explanations in response to my research question.

The Practice of Female Genital Cutting

The World Health Organization defines Female Genital Cutting simply as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.In spite of the pain involved, this phenomenon remains widely practiced in over 29 different countries today, concentrated predominantly in Middle Eastern and African states. Statistics reveal that “over 125 million women alive today have been subject to female genital cutting”, with an “estimated 3 million more being at risk” of coming under the knife annually. Hence, the prevalence of female genital cutting plays a contributory role in placing the issue as a key foreign policy agenda for the EU, particularly in its relations with the various states within the African continent.

 At this juncture, I would like to briefly acknowledge that the handful of issues examined in my response does not adequately reflect the breadth and depth of debate and politics concerning the issue of female genital cutting. Instead, my response focuses on providing some distinctive explanations on why the EU’s foreign policy towards abolishing the practice internationally commended.

 Definitions: The EU as a Model Power

What does the term “model power” used to describe international perceptions of the EU mean? I chose to appropriate Manners and Galtung conception of “normative power” to construct the concept and provide clarity the notion of EU’s power as discussed in this paper. According to Manners, normative power is simply the ability of the EU to “shape the conceptions of what is normal.” In contrast, Galtung goes further in defining the notion of normative power as the “distinct ability of a power sender (EU) to penetrate and shape the will of power recipients (African states).” Building upon both these ideas, the notion of EU power can be operationalized and demonstrated by its ability to distinctively alter the understanding of the “violators” (in this case, African cases) to view the practice of female genital cutting as a form of mutilation and to alter their behaviors to eradicate the practice. Therefore, in the context of this paper, the international community would regard the EU as a model power if they remain able to “positively” shape the perceptions and behavior of African states concerning female genital cutting.

 Research Question: Constructing the Puzzle

A vast amount of literature produced by academics and influential states and prominent International and Regional Organizations more often than not commend the EU for its efforts and “successes” in further the cause to abolish the practice of female genital cutting globally. Specifically, the EU efforts to alter African perceptions and abolish the practice within the continent have been viewed but most members of the International Community as a progressive step. The EU utilized a variety of foreign policy instruments in its attempt to exercise its normative power. The most prominent of which (for African states) includes the production of knowledge, international lobbying and the provision of developmental aid. 

Through these measures, the EU has been successful in getting African states to sign and ratify numerous international agreements such as the Cotonou Agreement and the African Union (AU) Protocol that reflects African acceptance of the EU’s normative position (genital cutting as a form of mutilation, as opposed to circumcision) and an explicit commitment by governments to clamp down and eradicate the practice within it territories. More examples that reflect the EU’s success will be provided in the subsequent arguments in my paper. At this juncture, it will suffice to say that the EU stance and efforts is well regarded by a majority of the international community, to the extent where they could be arguably be commended as one of the model powers concerning this issue.

In spite of these achievements, skeptics have been reluctant to ascribe the status of a model power to the EU as the practice of female genital cutting is still a pervasive problem for a large majority of its member states, one that many are struggling to cope with for numerous reasons. As of 2013, approximately 220,000 women with EU territories have been subjected to genital cutting, with a staggering estimate for approximately 37,000 more remaining at risk.According to its critiques, these numbers reflect the “domestic” failures of the EU, as a majority of its members are found wanting both in their commitment and ability to eradicate and manage the implications of the practice domestically.

 The lack of EU commitment is reflected primarily in the national “legislative gaps” and the incomprehensive application of the extra-territoriality principle in EU member states.Measured against its international activism, it is shocking to realize that only “10 out of the 28 EU member states” have presently criminalized the practice within its territories. To make matters worse, the courts of the 10 participatory members have trialed a total of 41 cases thus far, which consists of approximately 0.018% of the female population  that is estimated to have undergone the practice within EU territories. The lack of EU commitment is further exemplified through the refusal of certain member states such as Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg to apply the principle of extra-territoriality, which is crucial determinant of a state’s effectiveness in eradicating the practice amongst its population. The gross inadequacies of European legislature are unfortunately matched by a similar operational incoherence. The EU’s proposed inter-governmental approach has been severely crippled by poor coordination, both amongst government ministries within various member states and external actors (namely NGO and advocacy groups). As such, many existing and potential “victims” within the EU as present, fail to receive the necessary rehabilitation services and protection promised by the member states.

 In the face of these domestic failures, it seems counter-intuitive that prominent members would continue to regard and even commend the EU as a model power in the issue of female genital cutting.  The incongruence is stark. How can the EU serve an international “model” when a significant proportion of its member states continually demonstrate their lack of commitment and operational ability in eliminating the practice within its territories? What explanations can be given to reasonably account for these seemingly conflicting perceptions?

The Salience and Legitimizing Effects of the “Supra-National” in the EU’s Identity

My first argument rests upon the notion that, who we are (our perceived identity) determines how we are judged. Our identity shapes our “function” and “expectations” for external agents, thereby providing them a basis for judgment. Our identity defines the indicators of our “successes” and “failures”. With this in mind, I argue that the EU can continue to be regarded as a “model power” because of the confluence between the salience of its international supra-national identity and its international lobbying achievements.

 To begin, it would be difficult most to deny that the EU is regarded as a legitimate international actor in world politics. It has a distinctive supra-national identity as an actor, and an agent, as opposed to being a mere conglomerate of European states. This is clearly exemplified in the academic and political discourse surrounding the EU that implicitly reveals this bias. Manner’s is one of the many scholars that illustrate this, as he explicitly described the EU as a “hybrid supranational entity” that “transcends Westphalian norms”. The predominant scholarship surrounding the EU reveals a similarly bias, as the tension in much of the debates is rooted in how the EU should be conceptualized as an international actor. Even the conflicting arguments concerning the EU’s role, power, interests, governance and competition  in the international system reveals one universal implicit assumption; the EU is an conventional regarded an accepted as international actor. This obvious conception of EU identity needs to be emphasized as a foundation for my argument, as this distinct construction of the EU’s identity plays a fundamental role in determining the salience of the international arena (vis-à-vis the “domestic”) as the primary theatre for evaluating its successes and failures. As such, it is remains reasonable to commend the EU despite its poor domestic records because it has succeeded where it matters most.

In line with its identity, a large body of evidence points to the EU’s success in acquiring numerous symbols that reflects its ability to re-shape the normative perceptions of the African region and foster the necessary commitment to eradicate the practice within its territories. I will attempt to substantiate this by applying Manner’s framework for norms diffusion to examine the instances where the EU demonstrated its ability to propagate its norms internationally, in a manner that justifies their commendation as a model power.

The “procedural diffusion” of EU norms, which involves the “institutionalization of a relationship between the EU and a third party”,  is one measure of its success. The signing of the Cotonou Agreement  described as the “most comprehensive partnership agreement between the EU and 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific states to eradicate female genital mutilation (reflects the EU bias)” clearly illustrates the success of the EU. Another similar example can be found in the EU’s influence and pressure in shaping the African Union’s (AU) Protocol, which stipulates, “all legislative and necessary measures must be taken to eradicate female genital mutilation in Africa”.

 The EU also relied on its diplomatic influence to overtly perpetuate its norms. The process of “overt diffusion” is a direct result of the EU’s “physical presence in African states and/or International Organizations”. The most visible and prominent example is found in the EU’s success in elevating the status of the practice that allowed the issue of female genital mutilation to be placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2012. Since then, the EU has actively utilized the UNGA as a platform to lobby its agenda towards African states in particular, which contributed significantly in fostering African commitment to ending female genital cutting within its territories.

Lastly, evidence shows that the EU has also relied on the technique of “transference” which involves the diffusion of norms through the use of substantive and financial means, such as the exchange of foods, trade and technical assistance.Since the institutionalization of the Stockholm Programme in 2010 (an executive decision by the EU that allows all policy instruments be freed to combat FGM), the EU has actively developed and implemented various Social Assistance Programmes across many African states, aimed at educating and providing remedial assistance to those who remain at risk or have been previously subjected to genital cutting. The EU similarly applied this technique on the institutional level, as the signing of the AU protocol was backed by a threat of economic sanctions and the promise of developmental aid.

The signing and ratification of the various international agreements mentioned above are significant symbols that reflect the signatories’ acceptance of Europe’s normative view of the practice (as a form of mutilation vis-à-vis circumcision) and their objective commitment to fight to eradicate FGM within its territories. Echoing Krotz’s argument, these “institutionalized symbolic practices” are significant indicators of the EU’s success, as “symbolic practices creates reference points for (international actors) to evaluate the success (of the EU) within a given period”.

Therefore, I argue that the EU is often regarded as a model power because it has symbolically demonstrated its ability to alter the perceptions of African states to specifically regard the practice of female genital cutting as a form of mutilation, as opposed to being an act of circumcision. (Fulfilled Manner’s criteria of changing what is “normal) Furthermore, the EU has also successfully demonstrated its ability to build upon these normative altercations to push the African states to institutionalize their commitment to eradicating the practice within its territories, thereby translating beliefs into a change in behavior. (Fulfilled Galtung’s criteria) Moreover, these compliances have been expressed in internationally recognized symbolic forms that allow external actors to recognize the success of the EU, thereby legitimizing their role as model powers. Most importantly, it is the confluence between the international achievements of the EU and it’s distinct international identity that justifies the valuation of the EU’s international success over its domestic failures. Thus, it is the combination of the EU’s international identity and symbolic achievements (in changing African perceptions and behaviors) that legitimizes its role as a model power in spite of its domestic failures.

 The EU’s Resolve Demonstrated

Building upon the salience of the EU’s actions in the arena of international politics, the EU has in numerous instances invested tangible resources into developing programs and initiatives that aim to change African perceptions and practices of female genital cutting. I argue that these investments function partly as visible symbols to the international community to signal the EU’s resolve and active commitment towards achieving their stated goals. This could serve as another reason that justifies the EU’s model status amongst the international community, as they have demonstrated their willingness to “walk the talk” by bearing the inevitably costs of active engagement.

 Beyond mere rhetoric, the EU has through various platforms, increased the amount of financial resources invested into eradicating female genital cutting globally. This was made possible through policies like the Stockholm Programme, implemented in 2010, which was an “executive decision made by the EU to allow all policy instruments to be deployed to combat FGM”.This normative commitment was complimented by tangible actions, mainly through the implementation and subsequent improvements of the Daphne Programmes (Daphne I, II and III), which was the EU’s primary development program implemented to combat FGM globally. As of 2013, a staggering estimate of over 18.5 billon Euros was invested into eradicating the practice via “Daphne III”.

The EU also makes significant financial contributions in support of international campaigns that promote the global abolishment of the practice and development programs that specialize in offering rehabilitative services for victims. The EU’s contribution of approximately 1.104 billion Euros in assistance funds via the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) serves as one of the more prominent examples. Beyond providing overt funding, the EU also included the commitment to abolish female genital cutting as a necessary condition that developing nations (including African nations) must adhere to in order to gain access to EU financial and developmental aid. This was operationalized mainly through the “European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument” framework, where an explicit commitment to eradicate FGM remains as a specific condition that recipient countries must adhere to in order to be eligible for EU aid.

These examples serve as visible symbols to the international community that demonstrates the EU’s commitment to eradicating female genital mutilation globally. Through these policies and developmental initiatives, the EU has visibly gone beyond mere rhetoric to portray itself as a valuable and commitment player in support of the cause. Taking into consideration the salience of the EU’s international identity, one could argue that the financial sacrifices made by the EU in support of abolishing female genital cutting provides further reasons that justifies its commendation as a model power, as it has been steadfast in making the necessary sacrifices to further its cause. Simply put, in spite of its domestic inadequacies, the EU can be regarded as a model power because it has commendably demonstrated its willingness to put literally, “put its money where its mouth is”.

EU’s Utilization of the Hegemonic Discourse

In my second explanation, I argue that the EU successfully utilized the hegemonic Human Rights discourse as a means to legitimize the “appropriateness” of its normative view concerning the practice of genital cutting and the international action it has taken to foster African conformity. Their adherence to the hegemonic discourse is an important explanation for international EU approval. Hence, this argument focuses not on how EU norms were diffused. Rather, it primarily focuses on the implications that emerge from the EU’s framing of female genital cutting as a Human Rights violation, specifically in garnering approval from the major actors within the international community that have themselves internalized the discourse, albeit in varying degrees.

The idea of Human Rights has been one of the most prominent and globalized discourses in our world today. It has argued by many that the discourse on Human Rights has now become a hegemonic influence in international politics. A prominent scholar, J. Donelly argued that the salience and globalization of the Human Rights discourse was borne out of the historical trauma of World War 2 (particularly the Holocaust), the creation of the United Nations and the inequitable distribution of “soft” power that was concentrated mainly in the hands of the Western powers in the 1940s. Since then, the notion of “Human Rights has played an integral part in the process of Globalization. Driven both by Western governments and a majority of (Western) scholars, the Human Rights discourse gained hegemony (emphasis mine) and excluded the validity of other conceptions”.To substantiate my claim, many Western states in the American and European continent have overtly exposed their beliefs and commitments to protecting Human Rights both domestically and internationally. Similarly, prominent International and Regional Organizations including the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), African Union (AU)  and the Associated of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have like the EU, internationalized the discourse and demonstrated it via their explicit committed to protecting Human Rights in their respective charters. Because of its hegemonic influence, the concept of Human Rights has in many instances become the normative standard for a vast majority of international actors, upon which judgments of “progress” or “violations” are built upon.

With this in mind, the EU’s successfully framing of female genital cutting as indisputable violation of human rights becomes significant. The evidence supporting this claim can be found primarily in the discourse and knowledge produced by the EU, where the practice is constructed as a form of mutilation that directly violates the various universal rights of women and children. The EU Commission made this official statement in 2012, “FGM constitutes a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, dignity, equality between women and men, nondiscrimination and physical and mental integrity”. More overtly, in a paper outlining the EU’s strategy to ending FGM, the EU states, “Female genital mutilation (FGM), in any form, is recognized internationally as a gross violation of human rights of girls and women. The practice amounts to human rights abuses”. The EU is not alone in holding this specific subjective interpretation of the practice. Many important International Organizations have similarly bought into the legitimacy of the discourse and framed the practice of genital cutting as a violation of what is conceived to be the basic rights of the victim. One prominent example is the WHO that officially states, “FGM of any type is a violation of the human rights of girls and women”. Similarly, The UN General Assembly passed a Resolution in 2012 to ban the practice of FGM globally under the pretext of “advancing women’s rights”.

By evaluating the various discourses and “knowledge” produced by influential (predominantly Western) states and prominent International and Regional Organizations, it clear that a vast majority of influential international actors hold a stance similar to that of the EU, namely that the practice of genital cutting is a legitimate violation against the principle of Human Rights, thereby justifying the “need” for global abolishment and the “applause” for international actors that acts to further this cause. Therefore, the hegemony of the Human Rights discourse has become critical in providing a common worldview amongst key influential actors in the international politics, thereby allowing them to converge in their normative positions concerning the practice of female genital cutting. The convergence in viewing the practice both as a form of mutilation and a violation towards the individual’s inherent right legitimizes their stance and efforts to abolish the practice in the African continent as one that is “right” and “necessary”. This common normative foundation of Human Rights assumes critical significance, as it invariably dictates the formation of international judgments concerning the EU’s beliefs and efforts. As such, the EU efforts to push for the abolishment of FGM (which is understood to be distinctively pro-Human Rights) remains widely accepted by the influential shapers of the international politics as the EU stands and acts as they would. Therefore, the EU’s success in shaping the normalcy and practices concerning female genital cutting amongst African states is regarded positively, thereby justifying their position and commendation as a “model power”. Simply put, the EU continues to be regarded as model power in spite of their poor records because all that they stand for and do is in accordance to (instead of being in opposition of) the hegemonic norm of Human Rights, which serves a normative foundation that justifies the EU’s applause amongst key influential actors in international politics today.


To conclude, I have sought to examine the prevalence of female genital cutting as a specific EU foreign policy concern vis-à-vis states within the African continent. Within the specific definition of the notion of the EU as a model power, I sought to highlight how the domestic inadequacies of the EU contributes in part to the tensions that divides proponents and skeptics concerning this issue. With my research question in place, I sought to provide three distinct explanations (based on analyzing my research findings) that could serve to account for the seemingly counter-intuitive conclusions concerning the EU. Most of my arguments were focused on examining how the EU’s distinct supra-national identity, extensive commitments and utilization of the hegemonic Human Rights discourse played a unique role in contributing to the international commendation of the EU with regards to its efforts to abolishing the practice. In spite of the different perspectives offered, I believe that none of them are mutually exclusive nor should they be examined from a mono-causal perspective as a universal answer to what remains as a complex answer. Instead, the validity of each individual argument should point us to recognize and grapple with the inherent complexities and multiplicity of factors at work in shaping the EU’s perception and identity within the realm of international politics. The false dichotomy of “what argument is more true” obscures what is to me a fundamental recognition that an overly simplistic false dichotomy of “either-or” approaches simply will not do justice in our attempts to examine what remains as a complex issue. With this, I conclude my response.

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