EU-humanitarian assistance affairs: The utility of 'actorness' and 'presence' for conceptualising this EU-foreign policy-area

Essay 2005 17 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: European Union



List of abbreviations

1. The concept of “Actorness”

2. The “Presence”-model

3. Conclusion


List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The EU plays a multiplicity of roles in a range of policy areas in the international system[1] and the global context is increasingly seen as the stage on which the Union must act.[2] However, the EU is not a traditional global actor -it has a rather distinctive and unique international identity due to its institutional structure and decision-making procedures. Several theories have attempted to grasp this unique identity and are concerned with the question of how significant a global actor the Union is.

The following paper assesses the utility of two specific theories- “actorness” and “presence”- for conceptualising the role of the EU in one particular foreign policy-area- humanitarian assistance affairs.[3] Section one examines how the concept of “actorness” can be applied to the policy-area of humanitarian assistance and evaluates the result of this analysis. The same method is used in section two that discusses the concept of “presence”. The essay concludes by comparing and reflecting on the overall utility of the two concepts.

1. The concept of “Actorness”

The first model focuses on the notion of “actorness” of the European Union in international affairs, which can be tested by means of four specific criteria- Recognition, Authority, Autonomy and Cohesion.[4] If these are met, the EU can be regarded as significant global actor.

The following paragraph examines the EU foreign policy-area of humanitarian assistance in the

light of the four criteria of “actorness”.


The European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) is responsible for the coordination of humanitarian aid in the EU.[5] Since ECHO was created in 1992 it has significantly enhanced EU-visibility, effectiveness and consistency in this area and has become one of the world’s main sources of humanitarian aid.[6] Thus, the EU has extensive competence in the area of humanitarian assistance, which is increasingly recognised by other actors.[7] An example for the formal recognition of the EU’s competence would be the Framework Partnership Agreements (FPA’s), which will be discussed in more detail below.


Klages (2001) describes four pillars that constitute ECHO’s legal basis.[8]

First, on the basis of Article 179 of the TEU[9] a Council Regulation on humanitarian aid was adopted in June 1996.[10] This Regulation provides a clear definition of the European Union’s humanitarian aid policy and establishes ECHO’s mandate.[11] The aim of humanitarian aid is to prevent or relief human suffering by providing help to people in third countries (on a non-discriminatory basis[12] ), who have been victims of natural- or man-made disasters as well as structural crisis.[13] ECHO’s mandate thus covers general humanitarian aid, emergency aid, emergency food aid, emergency aid for refugees and displaced persons but also disaster prevention, short-term rehabilitation and reconstruction operations.[14]

Second, the Council Regulation (EC) No 2258/96 emphasizes the significance of rehabilitation and reconstruction operations in developing countries.

Third, the Commission Communication on linking relief, rehabilitation and development

addresses the ‘grey zone’ between humanitarian aid and development cooperation policy and

stresses the need to achieve long-lasting solutions.[15]

And fourth, by the Madrid Declaration of 1995 the Community reaffirmed its commitment to respond to humanitarian crises.[16]

It can be concluded that the legal competence of the EU concerning humanitarian assistance is clearly enshrined in the Council Regulation on humanitarian aid. The remaining three documents underpin ECHO’s mandate but do not serve as a legal basis in the classic sense.[17]


Although ECHO is a distinctive and identifiable actor externally, it does not have the resources to implement humanitarian aid-measures and depends on partners in this respect.[18] Thus the role of the EU regarding humanitarian assistance remains predominantly characterised by financial contributions; the true executors of humanitarian operations are the EU-partners.[19] However, the EC-Regulation on humanitarian aid keeps open the option of ECHO executing humanitarian operations itself.[20] The Union works with more than 200 operational partners that include specialist UN-agencies as well as international NGO’s.[21] The relationship between ECHO and the partners is codified in FPA’s, which ensure that the partners subscribe to ECHO’s principles and values.

Also, the policy-area of humanitarian assistance constitutes an area of shared competence between the Community and the individual member states as defined by the TEU.[22] Furthermore, the Humanitarian Aid Committee, which was created to improve the central coordination of aid between the Community and member states[23] and oversees ECHO as a ‘comitology’-committee[24], is an important instrument for member states to exercise control.

It can be concluded that the autonomy of the EC in humanitarian assistance affairs is hampered by the dependence on operational partners as well as the considerable influence of individual member states (i.e. shared competence).


ECHO is recognised as a unitary and consistent centre for decision-making by the international community and most of the time ECHO’s actions come up to this perception. Yet, it could be argued that the provision of shared competence in humanitarian assistance affairs and the member states’ bilateral aid programmes hamper the degree to which the Union can act in a unitary way.[25] The Union’s failure to act as a unity, in turn, can have a negative impact on the external perceptions of third countries and other actors in the international system.

From the above analysis follows that according to the concept of “actorness” the EU could not be regarded as significant global actor in the policy-area of humanitarian assistance since the two criteria of autonomy and cohesion could not be fully met.

Yet, the validity of this statement is questionable due to two problems.

The first problem is rooted in the concept of “actorness” itself. It is disputed here that the concept provides an adequate framework for drawing a profound conclusion about the role of the EU in humanitarian assistance affairs. This is mainly due to the fact that the criteria of “actorness” are not sufficiently specified. For example, how much Authority (-“actorness”) does the EU need in order to be regarded as significant global actor in the area of humanitarian assistance? Since this is not clear, it could be argued that the Council Regulation on humanitarian aid or ECHO’s mandate alone do not constitute a sufficient degree of Authority .[26] The reverse argument could be made for Autonomy and Cohesion.[27] To prove Autonomy, for example, the argument could be that: ECHO is mainly dependent on operational partners but also legally allowed to implement humanitarian actions itself.[28] Moreover, the FPA’s, which have considerably increased the effectiveness of humanitarian actions, benefit the Union.[29] ECHO can use the expertise of its partners and thus expand its competencies concerning the implementation of aid-initiatives.[30] Therefore it could be argued that ECHO’s dependence on its partners is ‘voluntary’, which in turn could prove a sufficient degree of Autonomy.[31]


[1] Bretherton and Vogler, 1999: 15. These EU-foreign policy areas mainly include trade relations, security and defence issues, development affairs, environmental issues and humanitarian assistance. The role of the EU varies from area to area.

[2] Cremona, 2004: 553.

[3] Humanitarian assistance affairs fall under the portfolio of the Development-Commissioner. However, it has to be emphasized at this point that this essay exclusively deals with humanitarian assistance. On development affairs for example see Holland (2004), Santiso (2002), Brenton (2003), Grilli (1993), Babarinde/Faber (2004) and Pernice/Thym (2002).

[4] Recognition describes the extent to which outside actors accept the international competence of the EU (in a certain policy-area). Authority defines the legal competence of the Union to act in a global context (The degree of EU-legitimacy, which is mostly based on the EU-treaties, varies from one foreign policy area to another due to member states’ willingness (or non-willingness) to transfer sovereignty to the Community-level. (Rhodes, 1998: 5)). Autonomy stands for the degree to which the EU has autonomous decision-making power and is distinctive and independent from other actors in the international system. (This includes a certain independence from the EU’s internal constituents. (Bretherton/Vogler, 1999: 20)) Cohesion, describes the extent to which the European Union acts in a unitary way externally. Several scholars have been concerned with the concept of “actorness” in relation to the EU’s external role and most of them conclude that some or all of these criteria have to be met in order to assign a considerable significance to the EU’s role in an international context. See Cosgrove-Sacks (2001: 3-28), White (2004) and Jørgensen (2004).

[5] ECHO is a seperate office under the same Commissioner as for the DG Development and thus the policy-area of humanitarian assistance falls under the remit of the EC (Community)-pillar of the Union. Humanitarian assistance is non-coercive.

[6] EU (2005). In 2003, ECHO channelled more than 600 million Euros to relief operations in more than 60 countries worldwide.

[7] The EU has always given a great importance to humanitarian aid, which culminated in the creation of ECHO that solely deals with this area and for this purpose has considerable resources at its disposal. Especially since the establishment of ECHO the EU’s humanitarian aid programmes have rapidly grown in scope.

[8] See Klages (2001: 184-185). Additionally, Article 254 of the Lomé IV Convention regulates the relationship between the Community and ACP-countries in terms of aid-policies.

[9] Article 179 TEU under Title XX on development cooperation.

[10] Council Regulation (EC) No 1257/96 of 20 June 1996.

[11] EU (2004). The co-decision procedure gives the European Parliament a greater role in defining humanitarian aid activities.

[12] This means that no political or economic conditions are attached to the provision of humanitarian aid. ECHO assists all countries or people in need (even those that do not receive the conditional development cooperation aid). Haglund (2001: 156) mentions four principles of humanitarian assistance: it is given free of charge, impartially and independently, unconditionally as well as directly to the victims of emergency situations. Also see EU (2000) and Butler (2003).

[13] Natural disasters include earthquakes, floods or hurricanes; man-made disasters include wars or conflicts and structural crises concern severe political, economic or social breakdowns. (European Union, 2004)

[14] Disaster prevention includes the setting up of early warning systems as well as financial prevention measures in high-risk regions. (Klages, 2001: 181). Also see Smith (2003).

[15] COM (96) 153 on LRRD emphasizes the need to improve the transition between humanitarian and development aid.

[16] Klages (2001: 184). The Madrid Declaration of 14th December 1995 also appeals to the international community to support humanitarian aid operations.

[17] Klages (2001: 185). The Commission Communication and the Madrid Declaration are only soft law. They have declaratory status and can help to interpret other legal texts.

[18] ECHO’s staff is limited (120 in Brussels, 70 in the field) and it does not have the expertise in the field. (Dalia, 2001: 171, 176).

[19] Dalia (2001: 166).

[20] Brusset and Tiberghien (2002:58).

[21] Partners include for example, the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Caritas or Oxfam. Since 1992 ECHO has signed over 7000 individual aid contracts with a value of almost 5 billion euros for humanitarian assistance in more than 85 countries. (European Union, 2000)

[22] As shared competence applies to the area of development policy, it equally applies to humanitarian assistance. The TEU-Article 130y states that member states may negotiate in international bodies and conclude agreements regarding development policy. (Damro, 2005). Member states are still the masters of the treaties, take the main decisions and allocate competencies.

[23] Holland (2002: 109). Whenever the Commission approves an emergency aid operation valued between 2 and 10 million Euros, the member states must be notified. The HAC, created in 1996 and composed of ECHO and member state-representatives, is governed by the Humanitarian Aid Regulation. (Brusset and Tiberghien, 2002: 52, 56).

[24] To monitor the Commission’s activity of drafting proposals and implementing policies, the Council has set up ‘comitology committees’ of national officials. Some have an advisory role whereas others can overrule the Commission’s proposals under certain conditions. But the Commission calls and chairs the meetings and sets the agenda. Egeberg (2003:144-145).

[25] Although the Community and the member states are supposed to coordinate their aid-programmes “(…) this remains an objective rather than a concrete fact.” (Smith, 2003: 36).

[26] This is equally true for the criterion of Recognition. In this case it could be argued, for example, that the financial significance of the EU or the formal recognition provided by the FPA’s alone do not qualify the Union for sufficient Recognition.

[27] For Cohesion, it could be argued that three points constitute a sufficient fulfilment of this criterion: first, the number of member states’ bilateral agreements has decreased since the creation of ECHO. (Dalia, 2001: 170). Second, according to the HAC-procedures member states have to inform the Community about new aid initiatives, which leads to enhanced cooperation. (Holland, 2002: 109). And third, the amount of funds provided by ECHO supersedes individual member states’ funds. All this proofs that ECHO plays a powerful role that outweighs bilateral programmes and the Union does act in a unitary way externally.

[28] Brusset and Tiberghien (2002:58). Direct actions used to represent up to 7% of ECHO’s budget. (ibid).

[29] Dalia (2001: 172-173). A new version of the FPA’s came into force in 1999.

[30] Also, the Commission has the final say concerning the allocation of funds and ECHO constantly monitors the humanitarian operations. At the end of the operation the partners have to report to ECHO.

[31] Also, it has to be noted that ECHO has greater budgetary autonomy than any other service within the Commission. Recent modifications to the budget structure allow greater flexibility – with the establishment of ECHO the Community budget was divided in 1 budget for humanitarian activities and one for emergencies. ECHO can also draw from the European Development Fund for emergencies. (Brusset and Tiberghien, 2002:57).


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Title: EU-humanitarian assistance affairs: The utility of 'actorness' and 'presence' for conceptualising this EU-foreign policy-area