The term “normative power” is often used in connection with the European Union. It implies that the EU has both been constructed upon certain values, thus has specific ideational guidelines to regulate its internal functioning, and actively tries to promote these on the world stage. All in all, the Union seeks to set a good example for the rest of the world by advocating for generally appealing ideas and concepts, such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.
There are numerous examples of the EU using its political, economic and institutional weight to promote certain values in partner countries. For instance, the European Investment Bank (EIB) provides significant financial aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. These funds support particular actions, such as climate action and environmental sustainability, which represented 58% of EIB global investments in 2022, in line with EU priorities. Likewise, the EU extends to its partners the extraordinary opportunities of its flagship Erasmus+ youth and education programme, which fosters diversity, cultural exchange and international dialogue.
Although the Union is still able to promote its values effectively, the system of international relations is undergoing drastic changes. The process known as “democratic backsliding”, which implies spread of authoritarianism and “alternative” value systems, is affecting individuals and communities worldwide. Indeed, people no longer seem to unequivocally recognise the advantages of the democratic model. On the contrary, many prefer to use other indicators, such as economic growth or increasing military strength, in judging a particular regime. Therefore, choosing a rational strategy under the new circumstances is a highly debated topic among EU officials.
Are value-oriented politics still reasonable?
In the face of these changes, the question might arise: “Is it rational for European nations to foster policies incentivised by particular beliefs?” Indeed, such an approach can appear to place the EU at a disadvantage, when other powers play by different rules, not tying their deals to a set of specific normative requirements. Nevertheless, it is argued that the positive aspects overcome the negative ones. Value-driven policies are advantageous as they enable the Union to:
- secure its dominant position in the international arena;
- combat democratic backsliding and thus prevent autocracies – traditional competitors of the EU – from gaining political weight;
- maintain stability and improve the efficiency of intergovernmental dialogue within the bloc.
Let us investigate each point separately.
Retaining status as a global player
Currently, the EU and its key allies occupy leading positions, both in material and ideational spheres. Thanks to cooperation with the USA, the EU can rely on military protection from external threats, while its values correspond with the basic principles of major international organisations, such as the UN and WTO. It is also evident that the EU’s political capabilities are strengthened by its normative weight. A good example is the 2004 enlargement: the attraction of the European way of life was a key factor in its Eastern neighbours’ desire to join the structure.
Therefore, the EU’s normative system might be viewed as an element of “soft power”, which persuades other nations to act in a specific way, bringing benefits for the member states. In the case of enlargement, the insistence on accepting specific ideas and standards has helped to increase the Union’s political weight and open new markets for the participating countries.
Preventing the spread of authoritarianism
The EU faces numerous external challenges, including the ones in the normative sector. Various actors seek to normalise unconventional beliefs and practices, primarily through extensive use of propaganda and disinformation. Russia, for instance, is appealing to certain regimes since it promotes an “alternative” agenda (often characterised by clear anti-Westernism). Indeed, the protection of so-called “traditional values”, never clearly defined in international law, is a highly-discussed topic among the authoritarian bloc within the UN. The challenge is especially relevant in the face of growing suspicion towards democratic governance around the globe. Therefore, it is necessary to promote a specific modus vivendi to compete with emerging unconventional approaches and ensure partners’ cooperation.
Furthermore, it is evident that authoritarian states are systemic rivals of the EU and its allies. Hence, if the number of non-democratic countries rises, it would gradually become harder to find supporters and defend one’s interests. Not only would the Union risk undermining its role as global trendsetter, but it might allow regimes, which pose a direct threat to the national security of member states, to gain a more significant following .
Enabling effective functioning and maintaining internal stability
The European Union is famous for its bureaucracy and complicated system of multi-level governance. Such an arrangement has certain drawbacks, one of which being the delay in decision-making processes. Nevertheless, the negotiation of agreements can be accelerated when participants trust each other. Indeed, trust within the European Union enables governments to enhance effective cooperation, issue joint statements and act cohesively to defend common interests.
The EU’s capacity for joint action was evident in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Member states agreed on a first package of sanctions within three days, which is an outstanding success considering the variety of interests and opinions among the member states. This was only possible due to member states’ belief that their interest would be considered despite the potential short-term disadvantages. Thus, Germany, despite its dependence on Russian gas, went along with the measures, as Berlin believed its allies would support it on other matters.
To foster trust, ensuring faithfulness to common ideals is crucial. Indeed, a unified feeling of “what is right” drives nations to make joint declarations and adopt common approaches to dealing with crises. Therefore, the effectiveness of the EU’s bureaucratic structure can be enhanced if similar values prevail among the member states.
Moreover, some researchers argue that interpersonal trust aligns with subjective well-being and postmaterialist values, constituting a coherent cultural syndrome. This phenomenon is directly linked to the stability of democratic institutions (partially because the culture of mass legitimacy prevails). Since European norms and beliefs accord with postmaterialist values (e.g., political participation, inclusion, self-realisation of the individual etc.), the introduction of specific Western-originating common practices encourages the emergence of trusting relationships between members of society, which also contributes to the creation of a climate of solidary among officials and diplomats.
All in all, apart from moral obligation, specified in numerous treaties among the EU member states, the Union has a rational interest in following the well-established normative course. A common vision helps to consolidate member states in the face of emerging dangers and to defend the bloc’s interests in a changing world.