EU: Civilian, Normative or Military Power?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, Intelligence and Security, Strategy & Defence

By Lamprini Basdeki, International security expert

There has been an ongoing dilemma ever since the emergence οf the Common Foreign Security and Defense Policy as to whether the European Union should be regarded as a military, a civilian power, or rather as a normative one, as the former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stated at an interview in 2007 (Barroso, 2007). This specific dilemma is inherently intertwined with the role of the European Union, as a whole, in the international system. The following analysis will focus on the general role of the EU as an international actor by analyzing the civilian, military and normative perspectives: what is it in the end and how can we best describe it, given the perplexing ambiguity regarding its character?

Military Power Europe (MPE)

Hedley Bull from the English School of the International Relations theory has been one of the first academics to support that the EU needed to be a military power, as the Civilian Power Europe is ineffective in international relations. To be more specific, he claims that “more generally, the power or influence exerted by the European Community and other such civilian actors was conditional upon a strategic environment provided by the military power of states, which they did not control” (Bull, 1982). In addition, classical realists would not acknowledge that the EU would be able to possibly hold the status of a strong military power among other states within the international system, as it places too much emphasis on civilian actors and it is too state-centric to form and support a collective military power. It is these state-centric views that are pointing out the greatest actual obstacle of the EU: the divergence of states’ national interests, upon which their collective action is based. In other words, if the national interests of the member states tend to be similar, and only then, is the EU able to take action.

In fact, the theoretical approach of realism is quite relevant to this debate, as the crises that have occurred over time, with the most recent cases of Ukraine and Syria have openly displayed the weakness of the EU on military matters. Despite the numerous attempts and six military operations, the EU still does not have a concrete army, and cannot be seen as a pure military power. On a legislative basis, it does have the capacity to become one, as the Lisbon Treaty allows so, according to the Articles 42 (1) and 43: “…the common security policy and defense, gives the Union the operational capacity based on civil and military assets. The Union may use them on missions outside the EU for maintaining peace, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter” and it “shall include joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks, military advice and assistance tasks, conflict prevention and peacekeeping tasks, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilization” and “contribute to the fight against terrorism, including the support of the third countries in combating terrorism in their territories” (EU, 2007).

By 2010, a total of 27 missions in 16 countries have been launched on three continents, with only 6 of them having actual military force, which would be used as the last resort. This implies that the EU is actually prepared for military action and it does have the means to reach independent military capabilities, but it is reluctant to use them. Thus, it is still far from creating a European army and from having the member states consent into a joint intervention (Ramadani, 2015), especially since their national interests are on the way. Despite the fact that the EU has military capabilities and military potential, it is not able to become a concrete foreign policy actor. Since it is clearly not a military power, does that possibly form for us a “civilian power Europe” or a “normative power Europe”?

Normative Power Europe (NPE)

The normative power concept has been widely discussed, appeared in the early 2000’s, developed by Ian Manners, in his work “Normative Power Europe: a Contradiction in Terms?” by the Journal of Common Market Studies and supported by Jose Manuel Barroso. Instead of classifying the EU in between the civilian or military dilemma, he chooses to conceptualize “Normative Power Europe” and refocus on the ideations and power of norms, which according to him the EU is using in order to extend itself internationally. Manners asserts in his work that ‘the notion of a normative power Europe is located in a discussion of the ‘power over opinion’… and the desire to move beyond the debate over state-like features through and understanding of the EU’s identity’ (Manners, 2002). That identity is formed by its very own acquis communautaire, which includes human rights, democracy, liberty, and anti-discrimination – principles that according to Manners are following the United Nations example, especially when it comes to dealing with third countries, in which the EU attempts to spread conditionality clauses. Furthermore, in the 2003 European Security Strategy the EU refers to itself as a “formidable force for good in the world” (Council, 2003). In that specific document, it is evident that the EU is trying to adopt the human security concept as a driving force to its actions.

On the one hand, recent examples, are Turkey and the role of the EU’s political conditionality to its democratization process as part of the accession process, which is demonstrating its social sensitivity, as well as the breaking of the deal between EU and Russia on the South Stream because of the conditionality demands of the EU, which demonstrate the significance of its principles. In addition, the climate change policy of the European Union seems to be the frontrunner of NPE, while its disarmament policy and non-proliferation is also supported by academics to be part of it.

On the other hand, maybe the deal between the EU and Russia on the South Stream did not manage to succeed due to conditionality clauses, but it did find another way (through the Turkish Stream), to bypass the EU principles and norms of the acquis. Moreover, the EU keeps on collaborating and trading with China, despite the human rights violations of the latter. It also still collaborates on a very close level with Turkey, even on the issue of refugees, as it recently gave 3 billion euros to the country, despite the fact that it is aware of the human rights violations against them and disregarding the disagreement of Italy on the funding. Even the older, yet relevant, example of the Iraqi war, and the involvement of Great Britain contrasted with Germany and France’s abstinence confirm the realist school’s concerns on the involvement of national interests in the foreign policy forming. It is, thus, certain that it is also not a normative power, as it is not able to get rid of the state-centricities and nationalistic behaviors in its territory.

Civilian Power Europe (CPE)

François Duchêne was one of the scholars who referred to the Civilian Power Europe (CPE) (Duchêne, 1973). According to him, the then EEC should be rather regarded as “a civilian group long on economic power and relatively short on armed forces”. He asserts that the EU is emphasizing and should keep on emphasizing on interstate multilateral cooperation, democratic control and soft power over coercion and hard power favored by other international actors (Duchêne, 1973:20). It largely concentrates on the proliferation of “social values of equality, justice and tolerance” and a common sense of responsibility in solving international issues.

As discussed earlier, the EU does not have a European army, all the decisions taken on a foreign policy level remain a sovereign and inter-governmental exercise. It does have strong military capabilities, which can be proved by the fact that it has sent peacekeeping operations with military force in 6 of them. However, academics such as Stavridis, claim that this kind of militarization of the EU does not make it any less civilian (Stavridis, 2001), even if the peacekeeping operations are consisted of people who are trained to kill. Larsen also argues that “military means are articulated as part of a range of means for dealing with international problems, where civilian means continue to occupy a central position (Larsen, 2002)”.

The fact that the EU is reluctant to use military force and is not using it even in peacekeeping operations is a key to CPE. It has dispatched a number of civilian crisis management operations in Kosovo, the Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and it is additionally involved in Somalian piracy tackling alongside NATO, but has not formed a coherent military strategy. The EU is inclined to multilateralism instead of using its military power. Hence, it provides humanitarian and financial aid while it broadens trade activities with third parties. In that sense, one could call it a civilian power. The role of the Lisbon Treaty has indeed strengthened the power of the EU in international affairs and its role as an international actor on a theoretical level, it is more of a civilian power though on a practical level.


Every part of this research can be in theory argued. For instance, how can someone not call the European Union a military power, since it has developed the necessary military capabilities and it has an essential legal framework which allows it to intervene in the cases that are deemed necessary? How can one also call the EU a purely civilian power when it still uses military force in its civilian operations? Is it ultimately a power, and how can someone measure power? As Maull suggests, the EU is not a power, and it is another thing having power and a different thing being a power (Maull, 2005).

What this research concludes is that the EU is “is neither a state nor a non-state actor, and neither a conventional international organization nor an international regime” (Ginsberg, 1999), it is however an international actor and an active player in regional and global politics, frontrunner in humanitarian assistance, trading and crisis management. It has been successful in civilian operations such as with Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was a liaison between the United Nations Mission in the region and humanitarian agencies that were present and played an important role in establishing relations that ultimately led to the gradual disarmament and rehabilitation. It is in fact the same operation that showed that the EU has the potential to get over itself, when it comes to military, as it proved that it can deploy military personnel, swiftly and effectively and also follow its normative role, which was the establishment of peace in Bunia.

Despite the fact that in this Operation the EU managed to combine all three forms of “power”, it cannot satisfy all of them. Ιt can certainly be not classified as a military one since it does not have the legitimacy to send people directly to their deaths, just as any other military actor does. What is more, it is not absolutely normative, as it is not purely acting in the name of its principles, but sometimes based on its profits: in the Artemis operation it is claimed by a number of academics that it wanted to simply prove that it can act without NATO’s assistance, in the aftermath of the Iraqi war. Moreover, in cases such as Iraq or Bosnia it has proved itself to be completely undemocratic. Therefore, it is very difficult to identify how committed it is to human rights and multilateralism. It is also very difficult to stick with one specific theory, MPE, CPE or NPE, but its economic primacy best describes it as a civilian power. Overall, the EU has more civilian options to bring forth and its basis has always been in civilian issues of trade, community and economics.


Barroso, J. M. (2007, July 17). (J. Peterson, Interviewer)

Bull, H. (1982). Civilian Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms? . Journal of Common Market Studies, 149-164.

Council, E. (2003, December 12). European Security Strategy. Retrieved January 24, 2016, from A secure Europe in a better world:

Duchêne, F. (1973). The European Community and the Uncertainties of Interdependence. In M. a. Kohnstamm, A Nation Writ Large? Foreign Policy Problems before the European Community (pp. 1-21). London: MacMillan.

  1. (2007, December 13). The Lisbon Treaty. Retrieved January 24, 2016, from The Lisbon Treaty:

Ginsberg, R. (1999). Conceptualizing the EU as an International Actor: narrowing the theoretical capabililty-expectations gap. Journal of Common Market Studies, 432.

Kupchan, C. (2003). The end of an American era. New York: Vintage Books.

Larsen, H. (2002). The EU: A Global Military Actor? Cooperation and Conflict. 283-302.

Manners, I. (2002). Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms? Journal of Common Market Studies, 235-258.

Maull, H. (2005). Europe and the new balance of global order. International Affairs, 775-779.

Ramadani, B. (2015). The European Union Military power: the new challenges with old dilemmas. Journal of liberty and international affairs, 4-5.

Stavridis, S. (2001). “Militarising the EU”: the Concept of Civilian Power Europe Revisited. The International Spectator, 43-50.

Venesson. (2007). Europe’s grand strategy: the search for a postmodern realism. In N. C. Musu, European Foreign Policy in an Evolving International System, the road towards Convergence (pp. 12-27). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.