1st Oct 2023


A new way of looking at 'power' in Europe

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It is often said that the European Union has become more powerful in recent years. And that, therefore, its member states have lost power. But while the former is true, the latter is not.

Certainly, we have 'more Europe' now than before: for example, we have established European banking supervision, a eurozone rescue fund, a European minimum wage directive and the world's most ambitious climate targets.

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  • The system is as strong as its weakest link — one Hungary can perhaps be managed, but several cannot

The EU has also procured vaccines for all its citizens, it funds arms deliveries to Ukraine and, thanks to common debt issuance, it is massively funding 'Next Generation EU' projects to help national economies recover from the pandemic. All these things — and more — were unthinkable just 10 or 15 years ago.

Look more closely, and you will see that it is not unelected officials in Brussels who have taken those steps, but national leaders. This shows that member states have not become less powerful — quite the contrary, in fact. It is national leaders who are the decision makers in Europe.

Moreover, in a marked contrast to past practice, they do not step back anymore to let the European Commission run the implementation phase, but stay involved by checking vaccine contracts and evaluating each other's recovery projects, for example. More than ever, national capitals are calling the shots in Brussels. In short, the European Commission and the member states have both gained power in recent years. The power of the one does not come at the expense of the other.

Outside observers often have difficulty understanding this. After all, the EU cannot be compared to a classical nation state with a strong government, a deep public purse and robust coercive power. Still, the EU has greater capacity than any of the international organisations in the global governance system.

Since it does not fit into any known category, the media and political observers tend to focus on what it cannot do, instead of what it can do. Every crisis in the EU is considered "existential" and every European summit meeting "make or break".

This is why the Irish political scientist Brigid Laffan, a former professor at the European University Institute in Florence, proposes to start thinking differently about 'power' in Europe. In a fascinating new study, drawing on existing literature in political science and partly building on lectures she delivered earlier, she writes that when it comes to modern Europe, we need to distinguish between two types of power: the 'power over' and the 'power to'.

When you have power over others, there is always an element of coercion in it, of hierarchy and inequality and sometimes force and violence — for example, 'power over' is what Russia wants to have over Ukraine. The second variant, 'power to', is a different kind of power: the power to act and to do certain things. This, says Laffan, is the kind of power we are dealing with in Europe, with 27 countries voluntarily sitting together (no one has forced them to join) to do things together they do not manage to do alone.

This shared power began with 'technical tools' like the single market. Using it, the EU became a global superpower. Companies all over the world companies must comply with strict European rules and standards if they want to enter the European single market. So, these rules and standards are adhered to in many parts of the globe.

Anu Bradford, a Finnish-American Columbia Law School professor, brilliantly described this mechanism in her book The Brussels Effect.

Some Europeans long back to the good old days, when 'we were just a market'. But mere normative power is no longer an option in today's world, dominated by raw geopolitical power games. Europe must respond to this, if only to protect itself. It has therefore increasingly begun to develop its political power, to be able to hold its own.

This has not happened by building an all-powerful superstate, but in the typical European way: with member states deciding piecemeal, with every crisis, to devise common solutions to new problems they are not able to solve on their own.

Brexit, Covid, Ukraine

Together with European institutions, they devise concrete solutions and decide what is needed and who will implement it. This is a fluid process, with many different actors. Laffan studied it based on three case-studies: Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

In her observation, member states are indeed the undisputed centre of power in Europe. National leaders set the direction. They decide what the 'narrative' will be, and whether existing instruments are sufficient or new ones are needed.

With Brexit, there was no need at all for new instruments: unity among the 27 was the main instrument, and all it took to maintain this were frequent consultations between Brussels and EU capitals. With the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, however, member states did decide to mobilise a mix of existing and new instruments. Increasingly, the European budget is being used.

In this way, Laffan writes, the EU is becoming a kind of collective service provider — supplying member states and citizens not just with rules but with vaccines, energy, border guards or investments at the request of member states. National leaders want to strengthen that function, for the simple reason that they benefit from it.

The strength of this system which she calls 'collective power Europe', based on power-sharing, is that member states partly run it themselves and therefore feel ownership. Its weakness, of course, is a constant lack of resources and power.

Moreover, each and every member state must be constructive and cooperative for it to function. The system is as strong as its weakest link — one Hungary can perhaps be managed, but several cannot.

But whatever its many flaws, the EU is what it is: a unique form of power-sharing in constant transformation, which should be judged accordingly. A focus on its capacity to act rightly, and finally, draws attention to what it can do instead of what it cannot do.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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