‘Normative power Europe’ through the lens of environmental policy: To what extent the concept of nor

Debates about the nature of the European Union’s (EU) power constitute a significant part of the academic literature on European Studies. Duchêne (1972) first argued that the EU is a ‘civilian power’, insofar as its source of power, at the time of writing, came from other means than military power. A response to this approach was Bull’s argument (1983) that the EU will never become an effective international actor without an army. Beyond this debate on whether the EU’s soft power enables it to be considered as an effective international actor, Manners (2002) introduced the concept of ‘Normative Power Europe’. This approach is independent of the discussions between hard and soft power, in that it focuses on the nature of the ontological foundations of the EU (Whitman, 2011). Thus, the concept of normative power deals with the ideational impact of the EU’s international identity (Manners, 2002) and provides a different perspective to study the EU. The ability of the EU to ‘shape conceptions of the normal’ (Manners, 2002: 239) is therefore central to understand this approach.

This essay seeks to apply the concept of Normative Power Europe to environmental policy and to assess its limitations. Indeed, the EU has sought to define its international identity by developing ambitious environmental policies (Tobin et al., 2016), and its ability to shape the position of other actors in this field has been recognised by a significant number of scholars (Carmin et al, 2004; Falkner, 2006; Lightfoot et al., 2005; Vogler, 2005; Zito, 2005). It is argued that although the EU can be labelled as a ‘green normative actor’ (Falkner, 2006), several factors limit its effectiveness as a normative power in the field of environmental policy.

The essay is structured as follows. The first part of the essay envisions the EU as a ‘green normative actor’ (Falkner, 2006). This section touches upon the concept of actorness in international relations and argues that the EU has actorness in environmental policy. It also deals with the EU’s self-perception as a green global power, and with the effectiveness of this perception in influencing the behaviour of other actors. Then, the second part of the essay argues that the EU’s normative power is more a matter of identity rather than of real outcomes. Therefore, the concept of the EU as a ‘green normative actor’ is questionable in many ways.

Firstly, Betherton et al. (2006) identify three criteria to define an actor in global politics: opportunity, capability and presence. It is argued in this section that the EU meets those criteria in environmental policy. Moreover, it is possible to claim that the two last criteria (capability and presence) demonstrate that the EU is a normative power in environmental policy.

The first criterion, opportunity, is defined as the factors in the external environment of ideas and events which enable actorness. For instance, changes in the international system can lead to greater EU involvement in global politics, as global politics are characterised by interdependence and globalisation (Ibid.) This statement is also valid for environmental policy. The EU has enjoyed several historical opportunities, which have allowed it to become a global player in this field (Zito, 2005). For example, the decline of the United States (US) as a global environmental pioneer in the 1990s was a considerable opportunity for the EU. Following the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the EU was able to position itself as a global actor in environmental diplomacy (Tobin et al., 2016). Prior to that, the US were well-known for their innovative environmental policies, especially in terms of fisheries conservation and the restoration of the stratospheric ozone layer (Vogler, 2005). However, the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the negative approach to multilateral enterprises such as the Convention on Biodiversity created a gap (Ibid.) in environmental policy the EU was able to fill.

Since then, the EU has increased its capabilities in terms of environmental policy. In Betherton et al. (2006) terms, capabilities refer to the ability to formulate effective policies and to the availability of policy instruments. Environmental policy was officially mentioned for the first time in the 1986 Single European Act, although the environment was already a dynamic policy of the then European Community (Zito, 2005). A few years later, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) introduced the concept of sustainable development as an integral part of all EU policies. Accordingly, sustainable development is mentioned from Article 2 of the Treaty (Treaty of Amsterdam, 1997). This concept is crucial to understand the EU’s international identity. Indeed, sustainable development is one of the four minor defining norms of the EU (Manners, 2002). Since the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, the EU has played a central role in creating the climate change regime and in promoting sustainable development at the United Nations (Zito, 2005). For example, this central role is noticeable through official documents produced by the EU, such as the 2001 Strategy on Sustainable Development and the 2002 Global Sustainability Strategy (Ibid.). Perhaps more significant in terms of norms and values, article 37 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights deals with environmental protection (European Charter of Fundamental Rights, 2000) . Moreover, the EU has also developed other policy instruments, such as the Climate and Energy Package (2009). This plan set the targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent, for sourcing at least 20 per cent of energy in member states from renewables, and for improving by 20 per cent its energy efficiency (Tobin et al., 2016).

The creation of these policy instruments are also crucial inasmuch as they also show how the EU perceives itself in terms of environmental policy. By adopting ambitious legislation in favour of the environment, the EU embraces universal values which places the global common good above national interests (Falkner, 2006). For instance, it could be argued that sustainable development is a universal value - the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, as an example, are global and involve all countries (Death et al., 2015). However, this value has been internalised by the EU and has been given a European reading (Whitman, 2011). Therefore, it is easy to assume that the EU perceives itself as a green power. As Whitman (2011) argues, the normative power concept has potential to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the effectiveness of a normative power can be assessed through the acceptance by other actors of the role EU actors project for themselves.

This acceptance from other actors of the role of the EU in international politics is a first element in understanding the third criterion set by Betherton et al. (2006): presence. Presence refers to the ability for an actor to exert influence beyond its borders and to shape the perceptions and behaviours of others. Lightfoot et al. (2005) argue that in order to be considered as a normative power, the EU must have the ability to influence the positions of both the developing and developed countries.

The 2004 and 2007 enlargements are relevant examples of how the EU has transformed environmental legislations and norms in developing countries (Carmin et al., 2004). To join the EU, former communist countries needed to implement the acquis communautaire, which entails a long chapter on environmental laws and regulations. During the transition, the international community – especially the EU – provided aid and expertise to environmental NGOs and governments in Central Eastern Europe applicant states in order to train and educate policy makers about environmental issues (Ibid.). According to Carmin et al. (2004), this assistance was crucial in diffusing Western European environmental norms and values. Thus, in addition to the changes operated by the governments in place in order to qualify for EU membership, environmental pressure groups in Central Eastern Europe began to adopt patterns of action and organisation similar to those in the West (Hicks, 2002, quoted in Carmin et al., 2004).

Furthermore, the role of the EU in international environmental summits in influencing the position of other major actors has been recognised. For example, Lightfoot et al. (2005) argue that the EU has been able to shape the priorities of the other major actors during the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. In the same vein, the EU played a mediating role between developing countries and industrialised countries (i.e., the US and Japan) during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The active role of the EU in international summits is crucial in extending its normative power, insofar as mega conferences seek to address the overall trajectory of human development. The Rio and Johannesburg Summits had a particular focus on sustainable development, a concept that ‘encompasses the entire planet’ (Death, 2010: 40). By adopting an active position in mega-conferences, the EU is thus able to extend its commitment to sustainable development and ambitious environmental policies. These norms are crucial in the EU’s identity, insofar as it distinguishes from other global actors (Lightfoot et al., 2005).

Nevertheless, although there is no denial that the EU is a normative power in environmental politics in many ways, the application of the concept to the EU’s approach to environmental problems presents some limitations.

Firstly, it could be argued that the concept of normative power is more suitable to some periods of time and to some sub-fields of environmental politics. Despites its successes in many mega-conferences, the EU has also experienced failures in terms of environmental diplomacy. For example, the EU was marginalised during the 2009 Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen, despite being ‘on home turf’ (Tobin, 2015: 40). Indeed, the talks were monopolised by China and the United States (Ibid.). Other failures of the EU at mega-conferences can also be noticed, such as the 2000 COP in The Hague and the 2002 COP in New Delhi (Vogler, 2005: 840).

Moreover, austerity measures have dominated the EU’s agenda since 2010 (Tobin et al., 2016). With the rolling back of public spending, the durability of environmental legislation is currently being questioned. Indicators that the environment no longer seems to be a priority for the EU since the beginning of the Eurozone crisis are numerous. For example, the new Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker – who was in favour of austerity during his presidency of the Eurogroup, prior to his functions as President of the European Commission – was noticed for its lack of environmental focus (Ibid.). Indeed, the Environmental brief was merged with the Fisheries and Maritime Affairs one, as well as the Climate Change brief was merged with Energy Policy. Moreover, the new Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Arias Canete, is well-known for his links with the fossil fuel industry (Ibid.). The actions of the new Commission led ten of the largest European environmental organisations (‘Green 10’) to write an open letter in which their concerns about those changes were expressed (Green 10, 2014). Although it is too soon to tell if the crisis will lead to a considerable weakening of environmental standards at the EU level on the long run, it seems legitimate to wonder whether it will enable the EU to remain a normative actor in environmental politics. Indeed, many environmental issues require long-term solutions. If policies are weakened as they are being formed in a context of austerity, severe adverse environmental outcomes may result for the decades to come (Tobin et al., 2016). This possibility outlines the role of exogenous shocks in the performance of the EU as a normative actor.

Another reason why the normative power of the EU in terms of environmental policy can be questioned is the complexities of the EU’s internal structure. First of all, the environment is a shared competence between the EU and its member states. International agreements on environmental matters are mixed agreements, where member states have their say and need to ratify those agreements individually. Therefore, some member states might want to impose their own standards at the EU level in order to minimise the adjustments costs (Vogler, 2005). Overall, Northern member states have been more able to upload their preferences at the EU level. This dominance of Northern states in the field of environmental policy means that Southern member states have had to download an agenda they did not advocate for. In terms of normative power, this divergence between member states means that some states are, in some ways, forced to adopt EU environmental legislation. This reluctance to accept environmental norms shows that the soft way of diffusing norms is not always efficient, as in this case, member states might adopt environmental legislation because they are forced to do so.

Secondly, even if sustainable development must be taken into account in every policy area according to the Treaty of Amsterdam, the sectoralisation of functions in the Commission and in the Directorate Generals (DGs) can affect the EU’s environmental performance. In practice, each individual directorate has its own priorities (Zito, 2005). Moreover, the DG for the Environment is relatively small and is mainly concerned with the development and monitoring of environmental legislation (Ibid.).Therefore, its functions are limited. Furthermore, other policies of the EU, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have severe environmental impacts (Ibid.).Yet, Manners (2002) argues that the EU needs to be a consistent actor by applying the norms it promotes outside its borders in order not to be labelled as a hypocritical actor. As a result, it could be argued that the EU does not always apply at home the norms it promotes, which can be problematic for its normative dimension.

As a matter of fact, it could be said that although green policies and norms are important to the EU’s foreign identity, it is much more difficult in practice for the EU to have a coherent approach. Sustainable development is a norm that the EU has appropriated to define itself vis-à-vis the outside world, but the concrete points this norm entails seem to be hard to identify. Indeed, in spite of promoting green policies, the EU is not a perfect green actor. As mentioned above, the CAP, one of – if not the – biggest policies of the EU has considerable negative environmental impacts. Moreover, it can be shown that the EU has strategic interests in deciding which definition of sustainable development should be adopted (Lightfoot et al., 2005). Indeed, sustainable development is still an elusive concept, and the EU seems to favour a definition that will not affect its economic competitiveness (Ibid.). The dilemma between being an environmental pioneer and developing policies that stimulate economic growth hinders the complete effectiveness of the EU as a green actor. As a result, the legitimacy of the EU in promoting norms and values about the environment can be questioned.

In short, it was argued that the EU can be considered as a ‘green normative power’ for several reasons. High environmental standards and the commitment to sustainable development are an important part of the EU’s international identity, and play a considerable role in its relation with other actors. In terms of environmental policy, the EU can be envisioned through the concept of actorness. Indeed, it has enjoyed opportunities over time which have helped it place itself at the centre of environmental diplomacy. Moreover, the EU has developed several policy instruments to become a normative power in this field, i.e., by adopting ambitious legislation and by including environmental norms in its treaties and official documents. More importantly, the EU has ‘presence’ in environmental policy, insofar as it is an influential actor in this field. Nonetheless, in spite of being an effective international actor in environmental policy, this essay has also argued that the EU’s normative power is not linear: the EU has also experienced failures in terms of environmental diplomacy, and the Eurozone crisis and austerity seem to indicate that the environment is no longer a priority at the EU level. Therefore, the EU cannot be a coherent normative actor if it acts in a different way than the values it promotes abroad. Moreover, internal complexities within the EU seem to prevent the EU from being a full green actor. Thus, the EU is a normative power in environmental politics – but this notion is questionable when it comes to assessing certain periods of time and the coherence of the EU’s discourse.


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