August 23, 2019

Establishing a ‘Normative Power Europe’: Assessing the Role of Enlargement in the Foreign Policy of the European Union

By Leon Donadoni


The unprecedented force of the events that rattled Europe in 1989, sparked by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and culminating in the wave of Central Eastern European (CEE) revolutions, compelled the European Community (EC) to devise a common responsive mechanism for foreign policy coordination. The cornerstone of this newly developed strategy came to be known as enlargement, and in the past two decades has resulted in the near doubling of the European Union’s (EU) membership. As a result, numerous policymakers and academic commentators have coined enlargement as the EU’s ‘most powerful foreign policy tool’ (Commission, 2003, p. 5; Smith, 2003, p. 66). While the paper fully espouses this view, it shall not assess its validity by delving into a comparative analysis of past EU international practices. Rather, the paper will adopt the unique approach of explaining how enlargement should be regarded as the EU’s most successful foreign policy because it invented EU foreign policy (EFP) as we know it.

To do so, the paper will first construct a coherent analytical framework for our study by exploring the notion of a Normative Power Europe (NPE). Following this, the paper will briefly analyse the role of othering in light of the Mediterranean and Eastern accession rounds. Finally, the paper will proceed to delineate the two major mechanisms that have transferred the EU’s normative commitment to the international arena. The paper concludes that enlargement is indeed the most successfully EFP as it has inevitably re-orientated the EU’s strategic-security considerations around identity, which in turn has led to the rise of a normative-based foreign policy approach.

Characterising the EU’s Strategic Culture: A Normative Power Europe

Traditionally, enlargement as a foreign policy tool has often been studied from a rationalist perspective, where EU practices are primarily driven by security concerns, which in turn are addressed through the promotion of socio-economic stability in the region. This approach, however, limits our analysis by neglecting the ‘deeper’ impact of identity and identity-formation on EFP. Consequently, to successfully assess the effectiveness of enlargement as a foreign policy tool, we must first understand the discursive and strategic context that determines its idealisation and application. The notion of strategic culture, initially conceptualised by Jack Snyder in 1977, serves this very purpose and refers to the set of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, norms, world views and patterns of habitual behaviour held by strategic decision-makers regarding the attainment of foreign policy objectives (Duffield, 1999; Klein, 1991). Consequently, exploring the strategic culture of EFP means dissecting the cultural, ideational and normative influences that dictate the EU’s behaviour in the realm of international relations. While numerous commentators have contended that the EU has not yet developed a sufficiently coherent strategic culture, it is the opinion of this paper that the enlargement process played a pivotal role in the transformation of the EU from a civil actor to a normatively-motivated international player.

Consequently, to avoid the rationalist analytical blind spot, the paper espouses the notion of a ‘Normative Power Europe’, first introduced by Ian Manners in his homonymous 2002 seminal article. NPE addresses ‘the ideational impact of the EU’s international identity/role as representing normative power’ by investigating the EU’s ability ‘to shape conceptions of normal’ (Manners, 2002, p. 238). From this perspective, enlargement materially consolidated the EU’s broad normative basis into a tangible and coherent foreign policy strategy. Enlargement transformed the various declarations, treaties and policies previously established by the EU into five core norms that have ever since been the foundation of EFP: peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights (Schimmelfennig, 2016, p. 270). Hence, while enlargement was a result of the internalisation of pre-existing, identity-based behavioural obligations in relation to neighbouring countries, it also materialised in a (re)definition of the EU’s strategic culture (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 5). This strategic culture now encompasses the role of the EU as a protector and promoter of liberal democracy, human rights, prosperity and fundamental freedoms, especially with regards to pan-European nations. As a result, the EU’s persuasive power rests upon the legitimacy, identity and resonance of its five core norms, which in turn have been created and argumentatively strengthened by the discourse underpinning enlargement (Schimmelfennig, 2016, p. 266). NPE thus allows us to study how enlargement, through identity formation, led to the establishment of a clearly identifiable EU strategic culture and foreign policy.

The Role of Othering in the Mediterranean and Eastern Enlargements

Since the institution of the European Coal and Steel Community by ‘Little Europe’ in the early 1950s, the European project has undergone multiple enlargement rounds which have redefined both its identity and foreign policy interests. While some enlargements were characterised by the absorption of highly developed countries with strong democratic traditions and well-functioning market economies, the Mediterranean and Eastern enlargement rounds particularly stand out as they mostly involved ex-authoritarian regimes with centrally planned economies (Hlavac, 2010, p. 5). For this reason, it is useful to concentrate on the effects of the 1982/1986 and 2004/2007/2013 accession rounds to understand the role that enlargement played in promoting the EU’s five core norms internationally.

The second and third enlargement rounds, also known as the ‘Mediterranean’ rounds, first absorbed Greece in 1982 and later Spain and Portugal in 1986. All three countries had a similar history of autocratic fascist rule, often characterised by low standards of living, violation of human rights and suppression of fundamental freedoms. As a result, the Mediterranean enlargement offered an opportunity for the EC to assert its role as a promoter of democracy. Commentators have argued that the 1982/1986 enlargement rounds allowed the EC to capitalise on the candidate countries’ desire to ‘prove that they were fully European’ by ‘provid[ing] support to democratic politicians, […] forg[ing] links with political parties, advanc[ing] important economic and political incentives, [..] and grant[ing] external guarantees to business and propertied classes who might have been worried about the consequences of democratization’ (Díez-Nicolás, 2003; Kubicek, 2003). The Mediterranean enlargement therefore enabled the EC to undergo a process of ‘othering’ in opposition to fascist regimes and associated values and foreign policy objectives. The result was that the EU adopted for the first time the identity of a promoter of beneficial democratic, economic and social reforms abroad.

By 2007, twelve new candidates, mostly formerly communist countries in CEE, entered the EU and where later followed by Croatia in 2013. If the result of the Mediterranean enlargement had been the birth of a democratic, peace-promoting supranational identity, the Eastern enlargement, without doubt, confirmed the normative core that was soon to lie at the heart of EFP. The Eastern enlargement, in fact, inevitably became intrinsically linked to regional geopolitical and security-related issues. Unlike the Mediterranean enlargement, which had morphed the EU’s identity in opposition to a no longer existing threat, the Eastern accession rounds shaped EFP in relation to the fear of a resurgent Russia. As a result, the EU incorporated in its foreign policy practice everything that Russia was not: a peace-promoting, ‘soft’ power, reluctant to use military means to advance its policy objectives, with a particular preference for international instruments which rotated around economic incentives and deterrents. In sum, if the Mediterranean enlargement had consolidated the role of the EU as a promoter of liberty, democracy and rule of law, the 2004/2007/2013 accession rounds expanded on this identity by establishing the EU’s role as protector of core norms abroad.   

Enlargement and the Mechanisms of EU Normative Power

Accepting the normative basis of the EU does not, however, necessarily make the EFP normative-oriented, nor does it prove to us enlargement’s cardinal role in the process (Manners, 2002, p. 244). Consequently, in order to successfully understand the role of enlargement in the establishment of an NPE, we must analyse how the accession rounds led to the formation of specific norm-distributing foreign policy mechanisms. In this section, the paper largely delves in the ‘storytelling’ of conditionality and diffusion, two main enlargement mechanisms which had profound and direct effects on the EU’s identity and contributed to shaping the EU’s strategic culture in the following years. Let us analyse each in turn.


In the discourse surrounding enlargement, the formulation of political conditionality played a significant role in the establishment of an NPE. By defining and spelling the criteria for accession and referring to democracy and human rights as a distinct and central rationale of the enlargement process, decision-makers also inevitably articulated the fundamental characteristics that they ascribed to the EU’s identity (Hlavac, 2010, p. 7). Following the Eastern enlargement, this identity became an integral part of EFP, as policy-makers began prioritising certain more identifiable normative goals over competing, less recognisable guidelines (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 12). As a result, the emergence of rule-guided behaviour began to assist policy-makers in determining ‘what the situation is, what role is being fulfilled, and what the obligations of that role in that situation are’ (March & Olsen, 1989, p. 160).

Conditionality had a positive effect on both potential candidate countries and the European neighbourhood as a whole. Internally, it allowed enlargement to develop into a strategy to pursue a ‘security community’ by anchoring democratic change in post-authoritarian states (Menon & Sedelmeier, 2010, p. 84). While this also occurred during the Mediterranean enlargement, it is particularly true in light of the Eastern accession rounds. The Copenhagen Criteria, in fact, laid the crossbar for entry into the single market, specifying that ‘[m]embership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities’ (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 8). As a result, conditionality notably strengthened moderate and liberal forces in unconsolidated democracies with mixed party constellations, as it built up sufficient pressure for parliaments to pass contested minority legislation (Schimmelfennig, 2016, p. 275-76). This was predominantly true in Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia between 1996 and 2000, where the accession criteria motivated the often-fragmented democratic opposition to join forces for the elections and, after victory, preserve coalition discipline (Schimmelfennig, 2016, p. 276).

On the other hand, conditionality led to the direct stabilisation of the European region externally due to its focus on requirements of good neighbourly relations. Friendship treaties were promoted through packages such as the Phare Democracy Programme, which led to the strengthening of public administration, the promotion of convergence and the furthering of economic and social cohesion. Greater cohesion meant greater interdependency, which in turn encouraged stronger ties between historically rivalling countries. The EU’s direct involvement in the amelioration of external relations between CEEs is what established the normative legitimacy to set up delegations and embassies in member states or monitor missions like the one deployed in former Yugoslavia (Manners, 2002, p. 245). Moreover, the discourse surrounding the promotion of normative-oriented policies rhetorically entrapped the opponents of integration into pursuing identity commitments, promises and enlargement practices (Schimmelfennig, 2001, p. 73). In this way, the lock-in effects of enlargement created a path-dependence that first affected candidate countries and eventually grew to become the EU’s strategic culture and foreign policy approach.

In sum, conditionality formulated a broader normative basis for the EU to actively promote and defend its underlying principles, both internally and externally (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 10). The universal nature of the values associated with conditionality meant that they were equally applicable in foreign policy, no matter the context. It could then be argued that the EU adopted an instrumental use of said goals to further its strategic interests abroad. However, this was not the case, as enlargement had such a profound impact on EFP exactly because the promotion of the five core norms was an intrinsically separate aim from the securitisation of the region. The achievement of these objectives as an end itself tells us a lot about the role enlargement played in the construction of a normative-based strategic culture. If political conditionality created expectations about future conduct, it should come to little surprise then that EFP practice is characterised by a ‘soft’ approach which does not exclusively focus on utility maximisation. Whether this process was intentional or unintended is less significant, what is important to notice is that by spelling out certain principles as membership conditions for candidate countries, enlargement made explicit that the EU’s identity rests on such norms and that the latter articulate what sort of foreign policy the block exerts (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 11).


Diffusion is the term coined to describe how the EU leads by virtuous example through the intentional or unintentional spreading of norms (Coombes, 1998; Whitehead, 1996). This often leads to imitation, replication and contagion, as it happened with the Mercosur, the African Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Diffusion can be furthered through the ‘logic of appropriateness’, the ‘logic of arguing’ and ‘rhetorical action’. The interplay between these three mechanisms is the result of norm-guided behaviour, frequently expressed through strategic communications, new policy initiatives, declaratory communications and the institutionalisation of third-party relationships (Manners, 2002, p. 244). Diffusion occurs as a direct consequence of conditionality since it exports norms which have first consolidated internally. Consequently, diffusion allows us to understand how enlargement had a causal impact on EFP through identity-formation.

Although diffusion resulted in numerous foreign practices, perhaps the most significant was the collective EU endorsement of the NATO military intervention in Kosovo. The universal endorsement was considered initially puzzling as many member states were neutral, public opinion was against the war, and a considerable number of decision-makers believed that the bombing campaign would be counterproductive and reduce the credibility of international law and the UN as a whole (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 18). It is therefore probable that reluctant member states consented to military intervention because such an action was justified on the basis of the norms that had emerged from enlargement and which had underpinned their identity ever since. Accordingly, the Berlin European Council stated that ‘…Europe cannot tolerate a humanitarian catastrophe in its midst. It cannot be permitted that, in the middle of Europe, the predominant population of Kosovo is collectively deprived of its rights and subjected to human rights abuses. We, the countries of the European Union, are under a moral obligation to ensure that indiscriminate behaviour and violence … are not repeated. We have a duty to ensure the return to their homes of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. …. We are responsible for securing peace and cooperation in the region. This is the way to guarantee our fundamental European values, i.e. respect for human rights and the rights of minorities, international law, democratic institutions…’ (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 18). While this statement was released before the Eastern enlargement, the language adopted was the result of particular pressure from the new member states Sweden and Finland. It is therefore probable that the principles established during the Mediterranean enlargement served to mobilise support for intervention in Kosovo. By associating democracy and human rights with intervention, failure to consent to the bombing campaign would have been seen as a failure to commit to the EU’s underlying principles and identity. Yet again, this was not ‘instrumentalism in disguise’, as the commitment to the democratisation of the Western Balkans was demonstrated in the same year with the Western Balkans Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAAs). Following the Eastern enlargement, similar agreements were also presented to Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the countries of the South Caucasus, which proves how EFP practice is fundamentally linked to the enlargement discourse. The Eastern Partnerships were not exclusively offered for geostrategic and security reasons but also due to the normative obligations which enlargement had triggered. Proof of this was the exclusion of Belarus and Ukraine from the agreements following failure to fulfil reforms regarding democracy and the rule of law. The theoretical implications of such an argument are significant, as it illustrates how the rationalist and identity-based explanations of norm dynamics should be considered complementary rather than incompatible in the analysis of EFP (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 21).

The collective EU endorsement of the NATO military intervention in Kosovo is just one of the many identity-based foreign policy practices which the EU conducted following enlargement. If conditionality strengthened constitutive values internally, diffusion allowed these norms to spread externally. As we have seen, enlargement encouraged certain actors to consent to foreign policy practices they would not have initially agreed to due to the social and reputational costs of non-compliance to a professed group identity (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 13). The diffusion of enlargement’s values, without doubt, increased the bargaining power of the EU as an external actor, while at the same time limiting the ground for self-interested policy practices. Consequently, the mutually reinforcing strength of the conditionality and diffusion mechanisms set the enabling conditions for the legitimacy to calls for action to promote and protect normative principles, both in the EU and worldwide.

Final Remarks

The conclusion this essay has reached is primarily threefold. First, it appears evident that the EU has developed a clearly identifiable and coherent strategic culture based on a normative-oriented foreign policy practice. It is important to recognise this point as neglecting the EU’s strategic culture means ignoring the contextual setting in which the EU internationally exercises its power.

This leads us to our second point. An identity-based assessment of enlargement allows us to examine the role of identity-formation and the rise of behavioural obligations in the construction of a consistent EFP approach. As we have seen above, othering played a significant role in the establishment of a Normative Power Europe by articulating fundamental aspects of the collective self-image of EU policymakers in opposition to the ‘losers’ of enlargement. The Mediterranean and Eastern accession rounds have highlighted how the enlargement practice has been particularly successful in establishing the role of the EU as a promoter and protector of democracy and human rights. This was a result of conditionality and diffusion, which provided legitimacy to the locking-in of beneficial domestic reform and the spreading of positive norms abroad.

Lastly, and most importantly, the proposition initially offered seems to be logically sound and can now be fully endorsed with greater conviction. Enlargement without a doubt has been the EU’s most successful foreign policy because it constructed the normative core of current EFP. The endorsement of the Kosovo intervention provides an example of how the establishment of a collective identity via enlargement has inhibited arguments primarily based on material self-interest (Sedelmeier, 2003, p. 21). For this reason, scholars interested in understanding a Normative Power Europe should take enlargement not only as a dependent variable but also as an independent variable in the interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationship underlying enlargement, identity-formation and EU foreign policy.


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