The EU - A Global Player?

Bachelor Thesis 2010 22 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: European Union


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Debate on the EU as a global player
2.1. Economic Power
2.2. Historical Development
2.3. The EU’s Foreign Policy Approach
2.4. International Relations

3. Case Study Iraq War
3.1. Short Background
3.2. The EU’s Course of Action
3.3. Evaluation of the EU’s conduct
3.3.1. Theoretical consideration of the EU as a global player

4. Conclusion

5. Reference List

1. Introduction

The story of the European Union over the past five decades has been unprecedented when it comes to bolstering its economic performance, securing stability in Europe and implementing democratic governance. However, concerning the future of the EU, the question has always been how much of a Union it will be and if the integration should also include such inherently national and highly sensitive topics like foreign policy, or remain at a mere economic level. The latest amendments via the Lisbon Treaty have pointed out that the EU apparently wants to proceed further in the direction of a tight-knit Community with an approach to become more visible in the political arena. Especially the creation of the post of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has led observers to believe this.

Thus the remaining question to investigate will be if the EU is a global player. For a more comprehensive discussion, the term global player first needs further clarification. Generally, the term global player derives from economics, denoting a multi-national company which tends all relevant markets worldwide and can exert influence on the economy with its decisions, e.g. Exxonmobil or Vodafone (Gabler; Greenpeace, 2002; BpB, 2006). However, lately, the term has also been used more frequently to describe a more general state of an influential actor. This means, the connotation is not merely economic any longer, but can denote a political actor as well. The ‘Forum Scholars for European Social Democracy’ has even dedicated the topic ‘EU as a global player’ a three day conference to discuss the state of the EU (cf. Cuperus, Duffek, Fröschl, Mörsch, 2006). Some academics have lately also conveniently used the term to describe states like the USA, China or India, which exercise a certain degree of influence on international politics but also economics. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these countries have a clear advantage over the EU with regard to being seen as a unitary global player: they are actual poltical entities. This is the obvious weak point of the European Union, its lack of coherence on the political level. All of the above implies that this paper will use the term global player to include economic and political features, hence aiming at the idea of an overall influential actor.[1] However, it will be shown that it is difficult to be powerful in both areas, especially for the EU.

Consequently, this paper will argue that the EU is not capable of being an overall important global player at the moment. There are certain niches where the EU certainly has its strongholds, i.e. trade, but especially the EU foreign policy lacks substantial drive and capability to assume power. In order to investigate this, the EU’s performance in the event of the Iraq War will be analyzed. Further, this paper claims that if the EU had acted as an influential global player in dawn of the Iraq War, the outcome could have been distinctively different. Thus it will be suggested that the EU would have been able to prevent a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

Regarding the structure, this paper will firstly take a thorough look at the current debate about the EU as a global player. Thereby, different aspects of the Union will be highlighted, i.e. the economic, historical and political facets of the discussion. This will give a general overview about the difficulties and achievements of the EU regarding its role on the world stage. To illustrate the EU’s shortcomings the case of the Iraq War will be presented. Following a short background information on the Iraq War, it will be discussed how the European Union, respectively the Member States, reacted in this crisis. In the following the actions will be evaluated and then the question will be raised what could have happened in the case of a politically united EU. Lastly, conclusions will be drawn in how far the EU is able to act as a global player.

2. Debate about the EU as a global player

“If I want to call Europe, what phone number do I use?”

(Henry Kissinger quoted in Malici, 2006, p. 1; Rachman, 2009)

The former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allegedly made this statement in the 1970s[2], when the European Union (EU) was still called European Communities (EC) and the Cold War was still raging. In his opinion, the European Community did not come across as a single body and was missing political coherence. Frankly speaking, the debate about whether the EU is one actor which can be considered to be one of the political and economic heavyweights in the world has been as fresh as a daisy. There are many different opinions on the question if the EU is a global player or maybe just particularly an economic superpower, which lacks political strength (Brill, 2008). Therefore, in the following the topics of economic power, historical development, foreign policy approach and international relations will be discussed more thoroughly.

2.1. Economic power

The assumption that the European Union “matters as a player in the global economy” (Collingon, 2006, p. 38) is most certainly one of the least disputed suppositions. The facts speak for themselves. The EU was ranked first by the CIA World Factbook with regard to the purchasing power parities in 2009, outperforming the US and China. In total, the EU’s GDP totaled $14.5 trillion. Further, the EU was also the world’s greatest importer as well as exporter in 2009 (CIA, 2009).

All of the above confirms that the EU is indeed an economic heavyweight. This is also demonstrated in the world’s most important economic organization, the World Trade Organization (WTO). There is one seat assigned to the EU, however, all the Member States additionally have their own national seats. Consequently, this means that the EU is effectively represented by 28 seats, which amounts to 19 percent of the overall available spots. Even though, the countries are individually represented, the EU “negotiates and acts within the WTO as a single body” (European Commission, 2009). Although, the WTO is based on the one country, one vote rule, decisions are not reached by voting but by consensus. Due to the EU’s enormous market size, it has a great bargaining power and can persuade “reluctant countries […] by […] offer[ing] something in return” (WTO). Sapir even argues “that the EU always sits at the high table of global trade negotiations reflects not only its size in world trade but also its ability to speak with one voice in trade policy” (2007, p. 7). Other countries can, of course, also form interest blocks within the WTO, but this will most likely not be as consistent as the coherence of the EU Member States to stick to one position on trade policy. This can also be accredited to the fact that, in contrast to other Free Trade Areas like NAFTA[3] or EFTA[4], the EU employs one single external tariff (Panagariya, 2002). This makes it more likely that the involved countries have the same aims and agree on policies.

Moreover, it has to be acknowledged that the EU started to successfully introduce its own currency in 1999 and by now the Euro has become the second most important currency in the world (Bundesbank). Lucas Papademos, Vice President of the European Central Bank (ECB), even pointed out that “many economic agents [...] outside the euro area increasingly choose the euro as their preferred currency testifies to the trust which they place in its stability and credibility” (2006). Thus one can argue that the EU has indeed created a global currency which has led observers to view the Euro-area economy “as one entity [which] gives the European Union a stronger voice in the world” (European Commission, 2010).

Nevertheless, much of the debate has implied that the EU cannot make use of this economic advantage (Smaghi, 2006). Compared to its prominent role in the limelight of the WTO, some observers argue that it only has a reduced role in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) where the United States is a good deal more influential (ibid.). The economists Ahearne and Eichengreen (2007) set forth that “[i]t is no secret that Europe punches below its weight in the international monetary and financial arena. Whether the issue is IMF governance, World Bank reform […] or global imbalances, the dominant voices remain the United States […]”. However, the EU still has a 23 percent share of quotas in the IMF compared to the United States’ 17 percent. Unfortunately for the EU, the newly industrializing countries have demanded for a change in quotas, because they feel underrepresented by the current ones (Euractiv, 2006). Indeed, it can be argued that “Europe has no shortage of opinions, but these suffer from a shortage of impact” (Ahearne & Eichengreen, 2007).

2.2. Historical Development

Another interesting subject in the debate on the EU as a global player is its unwillingness to emerge as a military power. Generally, it can be stated that a great deal of the EU’s behavior concerning foreign policies can be explained by taking a look at its history. The EU was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War and thus “has developed a genuinely different perspective on the role of power in international relations” (Kagan, 2002). The “rejection of power politics” (Courela, 2006, p. 162) was an immediate consequence of the pre-war events on the European continent because “[w]ho knows better than Europeans the dangers that arise from unbridled power politics, from an excessive reliance on military force, from policies produced by national egoism and ambition, even from balance of power and raison d’état?” (Kagan, 2002). Consequently, the EU has also refrained from the use of own military instruments in its foreign policy. This implies that the Union depends on other strategies to deal with conflicts. Namely, these are diplomacy and negotiations paired with commercial ties. Moreover, the EU is an adherent to multilateralism and a promoter of the significance of international law (ibid.). At the same time, the EU relies on “signing of cooperation and association agreements with third parties or other regional groupings [...] and a huge panoply of development aid, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance programs” (Courela, 2006, p. 162).

These instruments are very typical for civilian actors and the Union for long was rather satisfied with its standing as a soft power (ibid.). However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting change in the “security landscape” (p. 163) changed the game severely. The capabilities of the EU regarding security and defense have increased since then and the EU has, amongst others, launched Operation Concordia[5] and Operation Artemis[6] in 2003 (Joenniemi, 2006).

2.3. The EU’s Foreign Policy Approach

Nevertheless, there are many critics of the EU’s foreign policies, including the former Commissioner Günther Verheugen, who second-guesses the possibility of the EU to play a global role if it only relies on diplomacy and humanitarian aid. To him it is an illusion to only count on these means and further promotes that there have to be other instruments to put some decision through, i.e. a European military force (Verheugen, 2010). Similarly, Mario Dehove (2006) asks if the EU should “be satisfied enough of staying a prosperous Big Switzerland with no political ambition, or should it become a new big nation in control of its own destiny […]?” (p. 8). The answer to that is very ambiguous. Tony Blair (1998) has actually stated that “there is a strong willingness […] for Europe to take a stronger foreign policy and security role”. Likewise, Malici (2006) claims that “Europe ought to be able to move away from a ‘silent global player’ in matters of security and defense and towards an openly assertive actor” (p. 4). This means that the EU cannot keep its track of low profile operations but has to take a step into the direction of a leading actor.

Yet, the recent decade has not necessarily shown this but rather that there is a lack of coherence and strength in the EU’s foreign policy (Brill, 2008). The humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur has proven to be a good exemplification for the lacking impact of the EU policies. Undoubtedly, Sudan is the main recipient of the EU’s humanitarian assistance, e.g. €197,000.000 in 2008 (European Commission, 2008). However, it seems that humanitarian aid has not improved the situation, since election observers had to be withdrawn in early April 2010 because the situation in Sudan was perceived as too dangerous for the EU staff (BBC News, 2010b). Moreover, it is said that the different Member States pursue different interests, which led to the absence of a unanimous condemnation of the cruelties in the Darfur region (Riegert, 2005).

James (2009) has also signaled that the Gaza conflict has shown another side of the EU’s difficulties in handling foreign affairs. Instead of involving one main spokesperson, the EU at one point in time actually employed five officials in negotiations with Israel. Additionally, the French EU presidency headed by Nicolas Sarkozy had its own agenda concerning the conflict and made an individual effort to solve the crisis. Unfortunately, the following Presidency under the patronage of the Czech Republic had severe difficulties to match up to this intention due to a lack of resources and individual leadership (James, 2009).

Another major miscarriage of the EU’s foreign policy was the second Iraq War in 2003. The EU did not find a unanimous answer to the United States’ plan to wage a war against Saddam Hussein and diverged into war supporters and condemners. This will be further expatiated on in the later case study.

2.4. International Relations

How the EU is perceived in terms of being an influential united actor is also of prime importance. William Pfaff (2006), an American columnist with the International Herald Tribune in Paris, has pointed out that “there is great scepticism in the policy and political classes about the ability of the EU to assume a major role in international relations” (p. 193) in the United States. To begin with, much of the controversy regarding this topic is how the US looks at the EU. There is only little academic debate about what other influential or not so influential players believe in. However, it seems that the positions of the US is quite straightforward since “the metaphor of Europe as Venus, lovely but powerless, and the United States as Mars, still prevails in Washington” (ibid.). The US perceives the EU as seemingly incapable of managing conflicts on its own, which was effectively illustrated during the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s and the Kosovo conflict at the end of the same decade. The role of the EU has been limited to that of a peacekeeper. The US saw itself forced to take on a leading role in stabilizing the situation. Therefore, Kagan (2002) writes that “the real division of labor consisted of the United States ‘making the dinner’ and the Europeans ‘doing the dishes’”.

Moreover, the US also tends to work with EU Member States unilaterally. As Richard Morningstar, a special advisor on energy to secretary of State Clinton, rightfully points out, the EU still adheres to unanimity in the realm of foreign policy (Pop, 2009). Clara O’Donnell from the Centre for European Reform therefore says that “[t]here are just too many people trying to express [their] message” (James, 2009). Thus it is easier to find a bilateral agreement for the US with another country than wait for consensus between the 27 states. Above all, the Lisbon Treaty has been claimed to actually solve this problem by installing a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. However, the inaugurated Catherine Ashton is rather known for her “quiet diplomacy than international image boosting” (Underhill, 2010, p. 8). Thus it will not be very likely that the US will stop its bilateral talks with EU Member States in favor of talks with Mrs. Ashton, at least not publically.


[1] It should be noted that he term global player will be used interchangeably with global power.

[2] Rachman argues that this quote has been misattributed to Kissinger. However, this dispute goes beyond the scope of this paper and is not of utmost importance for the message of the quote.

[3] North American Free Trade Agreement

[4] European Free Trade Association

[5] “The European Union launched a military operation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYROM/CONCORDIA) on 31 March 2003. The core aim of CONCORDIA was, at the explicit request of the fYROM government, to contribute further to a stable secure environment and to allow the implementation of the August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement.” (Council of the European Union (a))

[6] “On 12 June 2003, the Council adopted the Operation Plan and the Decision to launch a Military Operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). [...] It was aimed, inter alia, at contributing to the stabilisation of the security conditions and the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Bunia.” (Council of the European Union (b))


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EU Economy International Relations Iraq case study economic power WTO



Title: The EU - A Global Player?