Beyond Spock and Spartacus – The EU as a regional Ordnungsmacht

By Tobias Franke | 4 April 2011

To quote this document: Tobias Franke, “Beyond Spock and Spartacus – The EU as a regional Ordnungsmacht”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 April 2011,, displayed on 02 June 2023

The EU’s foreign policy has sometimes been described as imperialist. However, the latest crisis in Libya demonstrates once more the EU’s resemblance to an Unidentified Political Object (UPO), with little sense of direction. Yet, should we put our heads in the sand and resign? No, it is high time the EU adopted a clear strategy and positioned itself in the international system of the 21st century. Rather than an empire or a UPO the EU could become a regional Ordnungsmacht.

Spartacus retired: Why the EU is not an empire

The EU's foreign policy has been compared to that of an empire by several authors (Colomer, 2007, Zielonka, 2006). Such comparison is indeed tempting for several reasons. Over the last decades the EU has pushed its frontiers by enlarging eastwards; the bloc can be seen as a rich centre in the European peninsula around which lays a dependent and poorer periphery; and the Union increasingly attempts to position itself as a global player. These three characteristics are usually also attributed to empires. However, a closer look reveals why this comparison is lopsided.

Traditionally, empires' foreign policy relied on expansion - military force being the main tool. Think, for example, of the sixteenth century conquistadores which subordinated large parts of the American continent to ensure that the sun would never set over the empire of Charles V. In contrast to that, the EU only uses the foreign policy tool of enlargement if and when third states formally ask for it. Admittedly, the costs of staying outside of the world's largest trade bloc translate into a certain pressure to join. Nonetheless, membership is regarded as mutually beneficial by the two sides. Conditionality and financial incentives are seen as stimuli to prepare the candidate state for accession. Interestingly, the current debates about Turkish accession and long-lasting negotiations with candidates like Croatia underline the EU's reluctance to expand further.

Empires tended to exploit the peripheries' resources to the benefit of the more powerful centre. Particularly the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth century with their colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia demonstrated this. The EU has developed several foreign policy tools which seek to do the reverse, namely redistribute resources from the centre to the periphery. For the period from 2007-2013 € 12 billion are available in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), an instrument to mitigate socio-economic differences between the Union and its vicinity. A similar amount is made available for candidate countries and potential candidates. 

Finally, empires could maintain their regional or global standing as long as they subjugated their competitors. Cooperation was unlikely as one man's loss was another man's gain. Foreign policy was thus regarded as a zero-sum game. The classical example is that of the three Punic Wars at the end of which the Carthaginian Empire lost its status as a regional player because it could not defeat the Roman Republic. The EU's foreign policy, however, is constructed around 'effective multilateralism' (European Council, 2003). Cooperation is considered a win-win situation. That's why the EU figures in a multitude of fora with other players. The EU-US summits or the EU-Russia four common spaces are just two examples which highlight why certain foreign policy goals can be better achieved in cooperation with Brussels' partners.

Having established that there are few parallels between today's EU and Spartacus' times, we now want to observe what sort of foreign policy the Union currently conducts.

Spock on duty: UPO EU - destination unknown


If the EU's foreign policy does not resemble that of an empire, how can we describe it then? Looking at the latest developments in the Libyan crisis we can state the following: the EU is still plagued by disunity. Following the UN-Resolution 1973 only the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Denmark teamed up with the United States in an effort to enforce a no-fly zone. This coalition of the willing is opposed by Germany, Poland, Malta and others; countries which are wary of the risks of military intervention. Surprisingly, even a strong UN-mandate could not incite the bloc to intervene in favour of its neighbouring countries and in accordance with the values and norms it seeks to promote. The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU’s most obvious foreign policy tool for crisis management, is neglected once more as member states have to decide unanimously to use it. Instead, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now attempts to position itself as the regional watchdog. It thus outpaces CSDP, an instrument – developed after the EU’s poor performance during the wars in the Western Balkans – which was intended to diminish European reliance on... NATO.

These events are even more disenchanting as the EU has created high expectations in its neighbourhood. Following the uprisings in the Maghreb countries and Gaddafi’s call to shoot insurgents like “rats” and “cockroaches” (The Economist, 2011), Commission President Barroso stated on 2 March 2011: “It is our duty to say to the Arab people that we are on their side. From Brussels I want to say this particularly to the young Arabs that are now fighting for freedom and democracy: We are on your side” (Rettmann, 2011c). However, five days later the EU fact-finding mission, sent by foreign policy chief Ashton to Libya, found the situation to be “almost calm” and met with Libyan officials. At the same time, the United Kingdom tried to establish links to the Libyan opposition, and the Netherlands was struggling to free three of its marines held prisoner by Gaddafi forces (Rettman, 2011b). Both Ashton and Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, were initially lukewarm in their response to the suggestion of military intervention but had to quickly embrace the newly-adopted UN-resolution allowing just that (Rettman, 2011a). Although the 27 agree that Gaddafi’s time in office is over, they cannot find common ground on whether or not to recognize the provisional administration in Benghazi. In sum, three captains try to steer a spaceship with 27 engines, all of which boost in different directions. Spock would not be amused.

These dissonances underpin the lack of strategy in EU foreign policy - visible also in the European Security Strategy (ESS) - and are detrimental to the Union’s commitment in its neighbourhood (Franke, 2009). A bloc which spends approximately € 200 billion annually on defence (EDA, 2011), but cannot tame the Libyan dictator, ought to engage in a geostrategic re-positioning. Referring to the EU, Hadar summarizes this situation in his article Libya should be Europe's problem - not America's, by saying that “Europe's response to a crisis so close to its shores has been anemic: bombastic rhetoric with little show in terms of diplomatic engagement or substantive measures to support it” (Hadar, 2011).



The way ahead: Towards the EU as a regional Ordnungsmacht

Given this sobering analysis, should convinced Europeans put their heads in the sand and resign to the fact that EU foreign policy has little clout? Is the EU's foreign policy deemed to be an UPO out of touch with reality? No, scholars have recurrently called for the EU to position itself in the international system of the twenty-first century (Emerson & Wouters, 2010). Based on a geostrategic analysis one can say that this position ought to be that of a regional player. In its vicinity Brussels' interests are enduring and rooted, legitimacy is higher, priorities are clearer, and limited resources are brought to bear where they matter most. In brief, the EU's foreign policy would assume the role of what I call a regional Ordnungsmacht (Franke, 2010).

The Libyan crisis is a case in point. Economically, it destabilizes the Mediterranean basin, good for 40% of EU oil imports, home to EU member states' investments, and a renowned tourist destination (Hadar, 2011). Politically, the EU has emphasized the importance it attributes to its neighbourhood, both in the ESS and in the Commission Communication A Strong European Neighbourhood Policy (European Council, 2003; Commission, 2007). Not following suit widens the gap between rhetoric and action. As a result of the Tunisian “jasmine revolution”, several hundred refugees arrive daily on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. An abiding civil war in Libya could reinforce this trend. Culturally, the two sides of the Mediterranean have many ties and several EU member states are home to large minorities from Maghreb countries.

Assuming that this assessment is correct, what impedes the EU from leading a more regionally-oriented foreign policy? Firstly, instead of envisaging a division of labour between NATO and CSDP, one could imagine a geographical division of tasks, ensuring that the EU's foreign policy instrument assumes full responsibility for the region. Secondly, the EU needs to decide what impact UN Resolutions should have on its foreign policy. Is a UN-mandate needed to act in the region? Can a UN-Resolution oblige EU member states to contribute to its implementation? Thirdly, the EU's three foreign policy players - Barroso, Ashton and Van Rompuy - need to clearly delineate their competences in order to ensure that the EU speaks with one voice. Finally, these points need to be summarized in a new clear and concise strategy - bestowing the Union with a regional identity. If the EU's foreign policy identity is unambiguous, we can expect more consistent behaviour (Bretherton & Vogler, 2006).

While the EU has to be ready to assume military responsibility in its neighbourhood, it can also offer something else: its very own institutional model, which has so far been a guarantor for peace and stability. The Union should not be shy to promote its supranational model in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Those three countries could form the core of an EU-inspired community open for other states in the region.

The first small step to take towards greater coherency in EU foreign policy must not be a catch phrase like 'political will' or 'an ever closer union'. Rather it is the simple realization that our neighbourhood is our responsibility. Taking this responsibility and acting on it in the spirit of the values and norms that unite the EU member states is what differentiates the regional Ordnungsmacht from an empire. While the latter sought to 'divide and rule' competitors, the former desires to 'unite and influence' partners.


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

  • "Blood and oil", The Economist, 26 February, 2011
  • BRETHERTON, C. & Vogler, J., The EU as a Global Actor, London, Routledge, 2006, 2nd edn.
  • COLOMER, Joseph M., Great Empires, Small Nations – The Uncertain Future of the Sovereign State, New York, Routledge, 2007.
  • FRANKE, T. F., "One Step Back, Two Steps Ahead: Revisiting the ESS – Towards the EU as a Regional Player", Yale Journal of International Affairs, vol. 4, no. 1, 2009, pp. 12-25
  • FRANKE, T. F., "Nosce Te Ipsum: Positioning the EU's CSDP as a regional Ordnungsmacht", Bruges Regional Integration & Global Governance (BRIGG) series, vol. 2, 2010
  • RETTMAN, A., "UN clears France and UK to strike Gaddafi", EU Observer, 18 March 2011a.
  • RETTMAN, A., "EU diplomat in Tripoli: situation looks 'almost calm'", EU Observer, 7 March 2011b.
  • RETTMAN, A., "Barroso to young Arabs: 'We are with you'", EU Observer, 2 March 2011
  • ZIELONKA, J., Europe as Empire: The nature of the enlarged Union, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006

On the Internet


Source photo : connections, par bupowski, sur flickr