Is the European Union a major global actor?

Recent discussion of the EU’s potential disintegration after the rise of populism has depicted an image of a weak European Union fraying at its edges, at risk of unravelling. A weak EU would supposedly be a weak global actor too, but this is clearly not the case. With the election of Merkel and Macron suggesting increasing European unity post-Brexit and the increasing role of the EU in international institutions, the EU is certainly a major global actor in almost all areas of global politics, perhaps save only militarily.

When combined, the EU is the second largest economy by GDP and is one of the most significant trading partners for most states across most continents, with a particularly heavy representation in America and Africa. Some of the world’s largest economies are represented within the EU and so the power of the EU to make and shape trade deals across the globe qualifies it as a major power in the global economy. Due to the single market and customs union, the EU sees its greatest cohesion of member states in international economic institutions, with the EU consistently being a dynamic, powerful bloc in WTO, WB and IMF votes. Though the subsidisation of agricultural goods has led to continued criticism of the EU’s treatment of developing states, the EU is still one of the most influential world economies in the development of LDCs. Besides (arguably) China’s infrastructure development scheme across Africa, the EU’s Everything But Arms policy is one of the most influential in encouraging growth amongst developing economies, granting the 48 UN designated LDCs duty-free and quota free trade. Thus, not only is the EU one of the largest and most competitive economies globally, but it is also one of the most influential forces in the development of the future economic order as it continues to invest in and cooperate with the world’s developing states.

Contrastingly, critics of the EU’s position as a major economic actor point to the absence of a fiscal union as putting the Euro and the EU as a whole in financial jeopardy. The EU also lacks a cohesive direction amongst some of its most important members, with Britain often rejecting significant and symbolic economic EU schemes (such as the Euro) proposed by Germany and France, the two largest EU powers. The role of the EU as a major actor in the global economy can also often be confused with the role of France, Britain, Germany and other wealthy member states which completely outshine their poorer EU counterparts. However the free flow of goods and services, coupled with the world’s largest customs union, means the EU will likely remain one of the world’s most prominent and influential economic blocs despite any potentially limiting factors.

In the realm of international institutions and global governance, the EU is represented individually as either a member or an observer in the G20, the UN, the G8, the WTO and many more of the most influential international forums and institutions in the world. The European Commission also works closely with the IMF and World Bank, and the EU is also the most significant collaborative partner to NATO and the Council of Europe among others. Thus the European Union’s influence and reach is only paralleled by the likes of America, as even China lacks such solid representation at Western-exclusive institutions. The fact that within the EU exist some of the world’s most powerful states with a common and deeply felt Western European identity means that the EU as an independent organisation will always inherit some of this authority and influence, particularly whilst France and Germany in particular continue to champion the ‘European project’. Whilst many of the world’s most significant international institutions continue to be Western ones often housed in EU territory, the authority of EU law will also continue to be an integral pillar in the global international system. For example, the EU’s ability to effectively shutdown international access to the Iranian economy through legal authority over SWIFT in 2012 illustrates the institutional and influential power which the EU can exert when required.

On the other hand, a lack of cohesive foreign policy direction damages this optimistic depiction of European influence and unity internationally. The annual budget of the EU’s foreign office is less than that of France’s alone, illustrating the lack of formal integration of foreign policy which has been implemented by the EU and its members. Currently there is little obligation for member states to reflect one another’s foreign policy, with military coalitions formed through the UN and NATO consistently lacking some EU members, with France and Germany notable absentees from numerous coalition missions in Afghanistan. The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has very little presence on the global stage, with member states taking centre stage at international conferences. The recent Iran nuclear deal saw the main three EU powers contribute to negotiations, representing their respective nation states not the EU. Realists would also argue that the cohesive role of the EU internationally will always be undermined by the separate presence of member states as independent members. For example, though the EU may be member to the G20, the national priorities of France, Britain and Italy may be very different and damage the likelihood of a cohesive, sizeable European influence. For this reason, realists thinkers argue that the EU will only ever be influential when the goals of either its most prominent members or a majority of members align, in which case the EU’s influence is then somewhat superficial and totally contingent on the state actors which comprise its membership.

A lack of security action by the European Union, however, is not necessarily a problem for EU status as a major global actor. The EU, as a largely liberal institution with a limited military capacity, is typically not focused on military solutions. As liberals like Joseph Nye would argue, the EU’s preference for soft power exertion does not necessarily make it a less relevant global actor; America’s recent militarism across the Middle East has certainly been influential, but not very productive. Instead, liberals would suggest that the EU’s rejection of substantial, united military action as an institution is instead good preparation for a world order in which soft power will be of increasing importance as ‘old wars’ are exchanged for ‘new wars’ – typically civil wars which will require more nuanced intervention than that seen in Iraq or Afghanistan. The EU is also a vital partner to NATO forces in data analysis, court proceedings and counter-terrorism as increasingly NATO operations branch out to tackling dangerous refugee overflows and increasing piracy around the horn of Africa. Though there may not be a significant effort to put boots on the ground under the EU flag, the EU’s influence and soft power still make it an effective (and potentially an increasingly important) actor in global security initiatives.


On the contrary, some theorists argue that diplomatic influence and potential military expenditure are mutually dependant. Tom Cotton, an American senator and neoconservative, argues that diplomatic influence is meaningless without the military power to secure diplomatic initiatives. Likewise, military operations require careful diplomatic oversight and consistency to be effective. The EU’s lack of a cohesive foreign policy alongside its relatively insignificant military force – the EU Battlegroups, only totalling a few thousand troops, not all of which are prepared for active deployment – means that EU military and security policy will always be of little significance due to the lack of consequence for those which defy or challenge the EU. There is certainly some truth to this argument, as currently the EU’s role internationally is limited to non-military engagement within a world order which still values hard power. Though the significance of hard power may be waning, as Nye argues, today its importance acts as a limiting factor on the scale of EU’s powers as a global actor.

In conclusion, whilst the lack of coherent direction and clear integration within foreign policy does limit the role of the EU as a global actor, to deny the EU as at least a major actor would be to ignore the influence of both the international role of the independent body and the distinct power of those member states like Germany and France. The EU’s far-reaching independent representation alongside its huge economic weight as a united bloc secure the EU as at least a major global actor, as it shapes the current and future global economy and uses unique institutional power to entrench Western European values and policy into the current world order.

Etien Jasonson

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