Written by Matteo Pastorella, edited by Apoorva Iyer

Section I, the EU as a normative power: identification of the concept of normative power and its political and military implications.  

If we want to define the EU as a normative power against ‘illiberal powers’, we must first properly define the concept of normative power.

According to the realism schools of international relations, the concept of power is ‘the capability of an actor to acquire desired results and to manipulate the behaviour of other actors to accomplish its own will’ (Mazzei, Marchetti and Petito, 2010) and can be measured by several characteristics, of which the most prominent is military capability. The concept of power can be understood through Nye’s distinction between hard power and soft power (ibid.). ‘Soft power’ refers to all elements that allow ‘power’ to be exercised in a non-military capacity, such as political, social, and economic tools. 

Therefore, the concept of the EU as a Normative Power Europe – ‘characterised by common principles and acting to diffuse norms within international relations’ – is associated closely with the realist concept of soft power (Whitman, 2011). 

Theoretically, being a normative power brings with it different strategies to influence other states in the international arena and responses to non-conventional (soft power) threats. However, the disadvantages in being (merely) a normative/soft power are manifold when faced with a conventional threat requiring a military response. Hence the EU, being a normative and not a military power, is in a critical position in the international system if faced with the possibility of an armed threat. 

Indeed, considering that the different European assets (that could be economic, as related to particular resources, or political, for example relations with strategic partners) should be protected against ‘illiberal powers’ (countries that have authoritarian tendencies, although they are not properly dictatorships) threatening the EU in a military (conventional) manner, the lack of a Common European Army could lead to disjointed and disorganised responses instead of a holistic and common approach to dealing with the threat. An EU common army could play a dual role through the power of direct military intervention, or performing the functions of deterrence (Mazzei, Marchetti and Petito, 2010) towards other actors in the international system, including through nuclear deterrence, as stressed in the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine (ibid.). Currently, the European Union does not fulfil this role, because of the lack of a common army and military system. Thus, it is in a vulnerable position in the geopolitical landscape.

Section II, why is the EU a normative power? Historical-institutional thresholds and empirical observations of the EU CFSP/CSDP missions

Looking at the EU’s historical-institutional precedents and some geopolitical cases, it is possible to  consider the European Union as a normative power and understand its limits in the international arena. The temporal spectrum of the European common military identity can be traced from 1948, when an idea of a common defence policy for Europe was affirmed for the first time with the Brussels Treaty, to 2022, with the Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which proposes to identify the current risks and objectives of a common European security and defence policy. Within this timeframe, certain political-institutional thresholds can be highlighted that have made the EU a normative – rather than a military – power. 

While some important institutional ‘successes’ can be considered in the creation of an autonomous European armed force, such as the activism of the Western European Union Council (1954) to implement the first form of European peacekeeping operations – the so-called ‘Petersberg Tasks’ (WEU, 1992) – or the recent establishment of the European Rapid Deployment Capacity (composed of up to 5,000 troops) (Meyer et al., 2022), the EU is still a normative power. 

Indeed, the structural limits of a common European army date back to the early years of the creation of the European entity and the failure of the ratification of the Treaty establishing the European Defence Community (1952). Although almost all member states’ parliaments had approved it, the Treaty failed following the opposition of the French National Assembly on 30 August 1954, and the consequent abortion of the ratification process by the Italian Parliament. 

Therefore, with the failure of the Treaty to establish the European Defence Community for many decades, the idea behind this treaty, the Pleven Plan, named after the French prime minister who conceived it in 1950, was considered to have stalled. The Pleven Plan had envisaged the creation of a European Defence Community (EDC) with a pan-European defence force by the six ‘inner’ countries of European integration: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

However, if common security has always been one of the main European objectives, it is also possible to understand the failure of reaching this objective following the Neofunctionalist Doctrine (Dunn, 2012). According to Neofunctionalism, the European integration process first occurs on an economic, then a political, and only finally a military level. In that case, the failure of the EDC can partially be explained, seeing the idea of common military integration/cooperation as the last step to be achieved as part of the European integration process, and one of the most difficult to accomplish. Indeed, defence and security aspects are part of the ‘high politics’ defined as the most controversial and polarised fields of political bargaining (Krotz & Maher, 2011). 

Having analysed some structural limits in European political-institutional history concerning the defence field and the common European army, some empirical observations can be made on the European projection in the international arena through its peacekeeping and foreign policy missions.

The first EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in 2003-2004 engaged in policing missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Poincignon, 2003) and a military operation in North Macedonia (ibid.). Since then, there have been 37 operations, 18 still ongoing, on the three continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia (B2EU, 2020). Nonetheless, the EU has been defined as a civilian power’ (Telatar, 2015), and a ‘quiet superpower(Poincignon, 2003), defining the CFSP/CSDP missions as a ‘cultural power(Telatar, 2015) or ‘strongly advocating for the expansion of peacekeeping forces to include non-military elements(ibid.). According to Hettne and Söderbaum (2005), some of these statements can be partially explained by analysing the weakness of the EU in terms of military power, seen as the most important reason for the EU being a civilian power (Bull, 1982). 

The idea of Europe as a normative power has also been affirmed in some political statements: Romano Prodi, then President of the European Commission, stated that the Union must aim to become a global civil power in the service of sustainable global development’ (Telatar, 2015). 

Hence, from this quote, it becomes clear (once again) how the European Union sees itself as refractory to the use of power politics – such as armed aggression – in its external relations with other countries. Finally, the consequences of the vision of Europe as a civilian power can be summarised in a single statement by the scholar Jens Pilegaard: ‘The defence posture is inadequate to mount a credible national defence’ (cited in Khol et al., 2005).  

By shifting the focus of analysis to look at different empirical cases, we can observe the limited success of the CFSP/CSDP missions in Eastern and Central Europe under the European External Action Service (EEAS): European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) (EEAS, 2008); European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) (EEAS, 2008); European Union Advisory Mission Ukraine (EUAM) (EEAS, 2014); and the European Union Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM) (EEAS, 2022). These European missions show the EU’s interest in eastern European regions, but also their partial inadequacy. 

Concerning EULEX Kosovo, this mission was characterised by certain structural limitations, emblazoned with a European component that repeatedly manifests itself in the EU’s foreign policy: the lack of unanimity. This mission can hardly be called ‘European’ as several European member states do not recognise Kosovo, namely Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. Additionally, regarding the operational aspects of the mission, it can hardly be described as a success, as it has not made an incisive impact in supporting Kosovo’s judicial reforms, which today still have serious problems concerning compliance with the rule of law (Dursun, 2018).

Concerning EUMM in Georgia, the role of the EU was as a mediator, to monitor the ceasefire on the border between Georgia and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In addition to the (expected) criticism from the Russian Federation and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the latter has repeatedly publicly accused the head of the EUMM mission, Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, of being an biassed actor and of ‘attempts to politically blackmail the Abkhaz side’, allowing EUMM to penetrate the Abkhazia region (Macharashvili et al., 2017).

From a more impartial point of view, the EUMM mission contributed to stabilising tensions along the borders of the separatist regions and assisted in restoring relations between civil society leaders and Georgian government authorities. Despite this, the European mission was described as ‘incomplete’ in that it was not able to contribute in a meaningful way to the Security Sector Reform and Governance Reform issues (ibid.).

Focusing on the EU missions located in Ukraine, one civilian and one military, the latter, EUMAM, was intended to assist the Ukrainian armed forces to create a deterrence force (EEAS, 2022), and support ‘Ukraine’s efforts in defending its territorial integrity and ability to effectively conduct military operations in deterrence of Russia’ (EEAS, 2022), to prevent a possible Russian invasion of the territory. This mission failed on 24 February 2022.

Section III: the European Union acting as normative power against illiberal powers: Reflections on the EU’s relations with Russia and China. 

Picking up on the distinction made in the previous paragraphs between conventional (i.e. armed) threats (and hence the EU’s ineffective response as a merely normative power) and non-conventional threats (soft power threats and the EU’s response as a normative actor), it is possible to hypothesise the EU’s response towards potential conventional and non-conventional threats from two global actors: Russia and China. The conception of the EU as a normative power in the face of ‘illiberal powers’ (assuming that China and Russia can be defined as such) is more topical than ever.

The Russian Federation, after several decades of partnership in multiple areas such as trade, energy  economics, and security (particularly in the fields of counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and conflict de-escalation in the Middle East), is now one of the most powerful challengers of the EU in terms of security. 

Indeed, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 onwards, Russia went from being a strategic partner to a potential conventional threat, triggering EU economic and political countermeasures (the feasible response that a regulatory power such as the EU can provide in the face of a conventional threat) as shown by the sanction packages against Russia from 3 March 2014 onwards (Orsini, 2022).

Nowadays, Russia is considered a conventional threat to the stability and peace of the European continent following Russia’s military aggressions towards other eastern European states, primarily Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2022). In light of this armed threat, an EU ‘civilian power’ appears increasingly inadequate (Norheim-Martinsen, 2007).  Consequently, the new strategies established by the recent EU Strategic Compass (2022) strengthening cooperation between the EU member’s states through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO, 2018) and NATO become possible countermeasures to address conventional military threats (Camp, 2005).

Nonetheless, the PESCO system is not an effective alternative for establishing the EU as a military actor in the international arena, because it remains characterised by a number of endemic problems, first and foremost a lack of a clear and unambiguous outcome to be achieved. 

The Headline Goal (1999) – to develop an autonomous and reactive European military cooperation force to implement capacity-building actions in third countries – is no longer feasible in today’s geopolitical context given the 2016 EU Global Strategy. This new European Global Strategy redefined the objectives of the European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), extending the headline goal also to European protection. However, member states did not express their will to reform the headline goal adequately to fulfil these new duties (Biscop, 2020). Moreover, even if the EU Global Strategy were still adequate, it would remain a secondary instrument considering the non-binding core of the CSDP and the generalised culture of non-compliance (not implementing the

 signed provision) of the 25 CSDP member states, most of which are in the EU (ibid.).

The EU’s position in the international arena is completely different regarding the Chinese People’s Republic. The imposition of China on the international scene can be understood as an element of ‘soft power’. Notwithstanding the recent military turmoil – the continuous series of military exercises and naval deployments – towards Taiwan (which, however, does not deviate from a succession of tensions and clashes since 1949), China’s presence on the international scene is based on economic power. Indeed, operations such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia and East Africa, with the consequent occurrence of the ‘debt trap’ phenomenon – a political-financial instrument to acquire foreign companies and multinationals by providing a series of loans impossible to repay – reinforce and maintain its relevance on the global stage and its influence not only in Central and East Asia but also on the European continent. As a matter of fact, Hungary (2013), Slovakia (2015), Poland (2015), Bulgaria (2015), Czechoslovakia (2015), Romania (2015), Latvia (2016), Croatia (2017), Portugal (2018), Greece (2018), Austria (2018), and Italy (2019) all adhere to the BRI to varying degrees (Yu, 2018). 

An example of the debt trap phenomenon on the European continent is the Montenegro case, which saw the European Commission forced to refuse to pay the debt ($1 billion loan) incurred by Montenegro to China’s Export-Import Bank (EXIM) (Burchard, 2021).

Currently, the BRI has expanded into many of the EU member states:  by now almost two-thirds of EU member states have formal trade partnership agreements with China through the BRI, in particular directly binding and influencing the national economic assets of Portugal, Greece, and Hungary (Turcsanyi & Kachlikova, 2020). This constitutes a clear expression of Chinese soft power and penetration into European territory, which could potentially present a threat to EU interests. 

However, in the face of this type of threat, the European Union has a wider range of instruments at its disposal to reconsolidate its role in the international arena. Not being able to mention, explain and describe them all, an example is the role played by the European Neighbourhood Policy (2003) in bringing (more or less successfully) different eastern European countries (but also countries from North Africa and Asia) closer to the EU and challenging the Chinese (as well as Russian) influence on territories such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus (one of the less successful examples), Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine (Biscop, 2010; Barrinha, 2007). 

To summarise, in those (divergent) EU-China relations characterised by soft power, the EU response to these non-conventional threats may be more effective than in the face of possible conventional armed threats represented by the Russian Federation. These different capacities of the EU to react emphasise once again its essence as a purely normative international actor.


This paper has hypothesised different EU reactions in the face of conventional or non-conventional threats, arguing that the EU is a normative rather than a military power, both from an institutional point of view and as demonstrated by some empirical cases. 

In the face of a political-economic threat, such as the one currently posed by China, the EU stands as a merely normative power by utilising its influence in the economic, diplomatic, and cultural fields (European Commission, 2014). Faced with a possible armed threat from the Russian Federation, a centralised force such as NATO would be able to effect a more decisive response than individual responses from European member states, given the comparative ineffectiveness of the European peacekeeping forces and the partial ineffectiveness of PESCO in large-scale conflicts (Biscop, 2020).

From a theoretical perspective suggested by the defence inflation theory – the greater proportional increase in inflation compared to the funds invested in defence (Khol et al., 2005) – governments cannot progressively increase their military expenditure because it is not economically convenient.   

Consequently, a European member state’s army environment is characterised by an inefficient local optimum: on the one hand, it is unable to act militarily as an internationally effective actor but, on the other, there isn’t the will to expand its military system because it is still adequate to avoid criticism such as the rationale of ‘mini-armies’ organised on a national scale (ibid.). 

The issue is precisely this: there are already relevant national armies, but they do not cooperate with each other in a European framework and, as member states cannot increase military expenditure, they should specialise: specialisation in the military field entails a reduction in costs and an unchanged (if not improved) offensive capability as it can be developed more. Specialisation involves the sectoralisation of certain military components for each country by renouncing others, that are integrated through international cooperation with other states (ibid.). 

Specialisation consequently leads to cooperation and, albeit already present in bilateral terms (i.e. the Belgian and Dutch navies under a single operational command) (ibid.), there is a lack of top-down management of military cooperation, steered and guided by the European Union.

Certainly, army specialisation should take place in countries with a similar level of defence, as no country wants to be a victim of free riding from other countries. Indeed, there are EU cases of military cooperation between countries – like Hungary and the Czech Republic – with a similar level of defence, where the latter has already shown a strong interest in military cooperation heading, in this case, multinational battalions specialised in nuclear, biological, and chemical detection (NBCs) (ibid.).  

Acting within the European framework through a series of top-down directives proposed by the European Union is more crucial than ever to partially fill several deficits in the European military and peacekeeping system, making it a global power capable of responding to threats from illiberal powers in the international arena (Kern and Heide, 2019).


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