reflection essay

Comparison between Böröcz’s and Zielonka’s visions of the EU as an empire. – József Böröcz, â??Empire and Coloniality in the ‘Eastern Enlargement’ of the European Unionâ?, in: József Böröcz and Melinda Kovács (eds), Empire’s New Clothes. Unveiling EU Enlargement (Central Europe Review, 2001).- Jan Zielonka, â??Europe as a Global Actor: Empire by Example?â?, International Affairs, 84, 3 (2008).Length of essay – 4-5 standard pages.


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Europe as a global actor:
empire by example?
This article will analyse the EUâ??s efforts to spread its norms and extend its power
in various parts of the world.1 It will argue that this effort is truly imperial in the
sense that the EU tries to impose domestic constraints on other actors through
various forms of economic and political domination, or even formal annexations.2
The effort has proved most successful in the EUâ??s immediate neighbourhood,
where it has enormous political and economic leverage and where there is a strong
and ever growing convergence of norms and values. However, in the global arena,
where actors do not share European norms and the EU has limited power, the
results are quite limited. Consequently, it is not only Europeâ??s ethical agenda that
is in limbo; some basic social preferences across the EU also seem unsustainable.
Can Europe maintain, let alone enhance, its environmental, labour or food safety
norms without forcing global competitors to embrace them?3
As Harold James rightly argued, the imperial analogy offers a good way of
describing the development of power on the basis of inequality and its use to
handle cultural diversity.4 The imperial analogy also helps to conceptualize the
EUâ??s evolving nature as an actor. Different actors apply power differently and have
a different approach to â??alienâ?? values. The article will analyse the unique ways in
which the Union tries to handle power and norms in the international arena and
will assess their efficacy.
In conclusion I will argue that although the Union has a global economic reach
it is not in a position to impose on other actors its preferred model of economic
and political cooperation. The challenge the EU faces, therefore, is not only how
For definitions of power and norms, see David Baldwin, â??Power analysis and world politics: new trends versus
old tendenciesâ??, World Politics 31: 2 (1979), pp. 161â??94; Zaki Laïdi, La norme sans la force. Lâ??énigme de la puissance
européenne (Paris: Presses de Sciences Politiques, 2005), esp. pp. 49â??54.
Most scholars agree that these are the basic characteristics of empire, but disagree on other matters. For typologies of empires see e.g. S. N. Eisenstadt, Political systems of empires (New York: Free Press, 1963), pp. 10â??12. See
also Alexander J. Motyl, Imperial ends: the decay, collapse, and revival of empires (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2001), pp. 18â??20; Herfried Münkler, Empires: the logic of world domination from ancient Rome to the United
States (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), pp. 1â??17.
The concept of norm used here refers to a â??freely accepted process of harmonization of actorsâ?? preferences
in order to advance common interests by strictly adhering to a certain number of rulesâ??. A vast body of such
norms is already agreed within the EU, but it is not shared by the EUâ??s global economic competitors such
as the United States, Japan, China, Brazil or India. See Zaki Laïdi, â??The normative empire: the unintended
consequences of European powerâ??, Garnet Policy Brief 6, Feb. 2008, p. 1.
Harold James, The Roman predicament: how the rules of international order create the politics of empire (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 4.
International Affairs 84: 3 (2008) 471â??484
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Jan Zielonka
to enhance its global power, but also, indeed primarily, how to export rules and
norms for which there is limited demand among the existing and emerging global
players. In other words, Europe should try to become a â??model powerâ?? rather
than a â??superpowerâ??, to use David Milibandâ??s expression. 5 This is a daunting task,
because the outside world looks ever less European, and Europe lacks a plausible
strategy of projecting its norms.
The EU as an international actor
Jacques Delors used to call the EU an â??unidentified political objectâ??, and it is
obviously difficult to comprehend the nature and behaviour of such an object.
However, the Union is not the only peculiar international actor.6 Today, only
a tiny minority of analysts would claim that typical Westphalian nation-states
are the only influential actors in global affairs. Students of international political economy point out that some business firms are more important not only as
economic but also as political actors than many of the existing states. Consider
for instance, the power of Microsoft or even Gazprom. Students of international
organizations argue that some of these bodies are not just agents of member states,
but independent and powerful actors. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is
often mentioned in this context, with particular reference to its dispute settlement
mechanism. Even the United States has made major legal revisions to its trade and
tax law to comply with WTO rulings. And we are also reminded that a growing
number of transnational non-governmental organizations are able to shape the
global agenda. These range from highly institutionalized NGOs such as Greenpeace, the Alliance for Climate Protection or Amnesty International to loosely
organized movements such as No Global.
So we have a plethora of non-state actors trying to exert their influence in different
fields, in different manners and with different results. Obviously not all of these actors
can be called power centres, but they are certainly engaged in global power politics in
their own different ways. States have not withered away, but they are not necessarily
the principal, let alone the sole, international actors. Moreover, there are different
types of states. So-called â??failed statesâ?? are hardly able to project power on their
own, even though they attract a lot of attention and resources. This category should
probably include not only dysfunctional states with extremely weak central governments, such as Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, but
also the European quasi-protectorates of Bosnia and Kosovo (and, some would add,
the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).7 There are also so-called â??virtual
David Miliband, â??Europe 2030: model power not superpowerâ??, speech delivered at the College of Europe,
Bruges, 15 Nov. 2007,, accessed 1 April 2008.
For an earlier effort to conceptualize what constitutes an international actor, see e.g. Oran R. Young, â??The
actors in world politicsâ??, in James N. Rosenau et al., The analysis of international politics (New York: Free Press,
1972), pp. 125â??44. For a recent analysis of the EUâ??s nature as a global actor, see Charlotte Bretherton and John
Vogler, The European Union as a global actor, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 12â??36.
The term â??failed statesâ?? is a commonly used but highly contested concept. It usually refers to states whose
central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory. See
e.g. the annual Failed States Index published by Foreign Policy, most recently in Julyâ??August 2007.
International Affairs 84: 3, 2008
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Europe as a global actor: empire by example?
statesâ??: entities with small ­territories, few natural resources and tiny manufacturing
production, but with a high-level research, product design, financing and marketing
capability. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan are usually viewed as belonging to
this category, which also includes Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. As
Richard Rosecrance pointed out, by transferring the bulk of their home production
overseas, and shifting their economies to focus on providing sophisticated services,
virtual states reshape productive and international relationships. They inaugurate a
world based on mastery of flows of production and purchasing power rather than
on stocks of goods. By investing in their people rather than amassing expensive
production capacity, they usher in a world where education and human capital
become more important than machines and physical capital.8
At the other end of the spectrum there are huge territorial states with a global
military, economic and cultural reach, such as the United States. They are anything
but virtual, and they defy Westphalian characteristics. The United States possesses
a near-monopoly on the use of force internationally, and it subjects other states
and international institutions to its scrutiny. It can impose its preferred norms on
less technologically advanced societies and it can even invade other countries with
impunity. The United States may not be in a position to dictate international laws
and agreements, but it can ignore them or demand exceptions to them. At the same
time it is able to apply some of its own domestic laws outside its territory. This is
why it is seen as a new kind of empire and not just an ordinary state.9
Some students talk about the European Union as if it were a state or a state in
the making.10 They point to an ever stronger European government in charge of
EU external borders and an ever growing list of functional fields, ranging from
agriculture, migration and trade to foreign policy, anti-terrorism and defence.
They point to the EUâ??s ever expanding diplomatic service and its growing
military capability.11 They talk about Europeâ??s mission in the world and discuss
the â??European security strategyâ??.12 However, all this is misleading, because the EU
is nothing like a state, nor is it likely to become one. The Union has no effective
monopoly over the legitimate means of coercion. It has no clearly defined centre
of authority. Its territory is not fixed. Its geographical, administrative, economic
and cultural borders diverge. It is a polity without coherent demos, a power
without ­identifiable purpose, a geopolitical entity without defined ­territorial
Richard Rosecrance, The rise of the virtual state: wealth and power in the coming century (New York: Basic Books,
1999), p. 3â??27.
See e.g. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: the price of Americaâ??s empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), or Charles S. Maier,
Among empires: American ascendancy and its predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). For
other types of analogy see e.g. Andrew J. Bacevich, American empire: the realities and consequences of US diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Colin Mooers, ed., The new imperialists (Oxford:
Oneworld, 2006), esp. pp. 137â??228.
Some commentators admit that the EU is not yet a state, but argue that it should become one. See e.g. Glyn
Morgan, The idea of a European superstate: public justification and European integration (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2005). See also Guy Verhofstadt, The United States of Europe (London: Federal Trust, 2006).
For instance, there are currently more than 120 diplomatic missions of the Union (called EU delegations) all
over the world and their number is growing. See
intro/, accessed 1 April 2008.
Such a strategy has indeed been adopted. See European Council, A secure Europe in a better worldâ??European
Security Strategy (Brussels: European Council, 12 Dec. 2003).
International Affairs 84: 3, 2008
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Jan Zielonka
limits. The European Common Foreign and Security Policy is a misnomer because
EU member states are allowed to act outside the EU framework, and frequently
do so, either within the UN framework or via the OSCE, Council of Europe or
NATO. European foreign and security policies are often carried out by formal
or informal coalitions of the willing, by contact groups or bilateral initiatives.
Europeâ??s external trade relations are largely divorced from Europeâ??s foreign policy.
Responsibility for external trade is shared or split between the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the Council of Ministers, the euro area and the
member states.
Nevertheless, though the Union may not be a state, it is a very powerful international actor.13 With its 27 member states and their nearly 500 million inhabitants, a quarter of the worldâ??s GNP and around 40 per cent of its merchandise
exports, and a comprehensive array of economic, legal, diplomatic and military
instruments at its disposal, the EU is able to exercise significant influence in various
parts of the world. The euro is now the worldâ??s second most important inter­
national reserve and trade currency, giving substantial influence to the EU around
the world. European norms and regulations are progressively being adopted across
the world, even prompting accusations of â??regulatory imperialismâ??.14 Consider, for
instance, EU regulations on financial markets, data privacy, food and health protection, the environment or criminal justice.15 Europe is also the largest provider of
developmental aid. In 2006 the EU paid out for this purpose over â?¬2 billion, which
represents over 40 per cent of official aid internationally.
There are also good reasons to take the European foreign policy project seriously.
Diplomats from EU countries meet about 100 times a year, and adopt over 100 joint
statements, communiqués and declarations. The EU framework has become the
most crucial centre for European foreign policy debates, where national policies
meet and part. Today all EU member states try to speak and act â??in the name of
Europeâ??, if not through the Union itself. In recent years the EUâ??s contribution to
international peace and security has also intensified rapidly, reaching such different
and often distant places as East Timor, Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon,
Bosnia and Georgia.16
See Christopher Hill, â??Superstate or superpower? The future of the European Union in world politicsâ??, in P. S.
Blesa Aledo and T. Los-Nowak, eds, Narrowing the gap between east and west: a historical-political approach to current
European challenges based on the Spanish and Polish cases (San Antonio and Wroclaw: Fundación Universitaria San
Antonio, 2003); also Richard G. Whitman, From civilian power to superpower? The international identity of the EU
(London: Macmillan, 1998).
â??Europe v. US businessâ??, Wall Street Journal, 17 Jan. 2008, p. A16. The article cites examples of EU efforts to cow
large American firms such as Microsoft, Qualcomm and MasterCard with anti-trust laws. Other frequently
cited examples of European â??regulatory imperialismâ?? include the Reach legislation on chemical products and
the ban on the import of chlorine-rinsed poultry.
See e.g. David Bach and Abraham Newman, â??The European regulatory state and global public policy: microinstitutions, micro influenceâ??, Journal of European Public Policy 14: 6, 2007, pp. 827â??46.
The EU has launched civilian missions to monitor implementation of the peace process in Aceh in Indonesia,
support the stabilization process in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and support the rule of law in Iraq
and the reform of Palestinian civil police. It contributes to building police capacity in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is supporting policing elements of the African
Union missions in Sudan and is also contributing to rule of law reform and border monitoring in Georgia.
The missions currently in the field also include EUPOL in Afghanistan, the EU border assistance mission to
Moldova and Ukraine, and the civilianâ??military supporting action to AMIS II in Sudan.
International Affairs 84: 3, 2008
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Europe as a global actor: empire by example?
This raises the question of what kind of power the EU really is. If the Union
is not a state, what is it? In my view, the Union looks and acts like an empire
because it tries to assert political and economic control over various peripheral
actors through formal annexations or various forms of economic and political
domination.17 This kind of imperial politics is most pronounced in the periphery
of Europe, but one can also trace similar policy patterns towards more distant
parts of the world. Europe claims that its model of interstate cooperation has a
universal character, and it tries to make other actors accept its norms and standards
by applying economic incentives and punishments.
Of course, the Union is not an empire like contemporary America or nineteenthcentury Britain. The EU has a polycentric rather than centralized governance
structure. The EUâ??s â??imperialâ?? instruments are chiefly economic and bureaucratic
rather than military and political. Its territorial acquisitions take place by invitation rather than conquest. Legitimizing strategies of the Union do not follow the
usual imperial motto of â??might is rightâ??. The EU legitimizes its policies by claiming
that its norms are right and that it promotes the most efficient model of economic
and political integration. The periphery is often able, gradually, to gain access
to the decision-making mechanisms of the European metropolis. Its sovereignty
is not denied, but merely constrained by the policy of EU conditional help and
That said, it would be wrong to identify the Union with soft power alone.
The concept of soft power, as spelled out by Joseph S. Nye, is based on diplomacy.18 Soft powers shape institutions by setting agendas. They also rely on their
normative power of attraction to spread values. The Union not only applies soft
power of this kind, but has also used economic power to further its objectives,
including the instruments of sanctions, bribes and even coercion. Consider, for
instance, the mega-fine of $1.4 billion imposed on Microsoft for failure to comply
with European regulatory demands to end allegedly anti-competitive business
In the following two sections I shall first examine how the Union tries to shape
its own unstable neighbourhood, and then look at the EUâ??s global agenda.
I developed this argument in Jan Zielonka, Europe as empire: the nature of the enlarged EU (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 9â??20. My concept of â??neo-medievalâ?? empire is based on the following characteristics: soft borders in flux; persistence of socio-economic and cultural differentiation; disjunction between
authoritative allocations, functional competencies and territorial constituencies; and interpenetration of various types of political units and loyalties. Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande developed a concept of â??cosmopolitan
empireâ??, according to which the current European empire (unlike the empires of the nineteenth century) is not
based on â??national demarcation and conquest, but on overcoming national borders, voluntarism, consensus,
transnational interdependence and the political added value accruing from cooperationâ??. See Ulrich Beck and
Edgar Grande, Cosmopolitan Europe (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 53.
Joseph S. Nye, Soft power: the means to success in world politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 31. Nye identifies three types of power: military, economic and soft.
See Nikki Tait and Kevin Allison, â??Brussels hits Microsoft with â?¬899m antitrust fineâ??, Financial Times, 28 Feb.
2008, p. 27.
International Affairs 84: 3, 2008
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Jan Zielonka
The EUâ??s regional agenda
The imperial pattern is most pronounced when we look at the EUâ??s enlargement
policy towards Central and Eastern Europe. In its essence enlargement was about
asserting the EUâ??s political and economic control over the un …
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