ZHOU Hong:EU as a Power– the Impact of European Integration on the World’s Multi-polarization


Researchers translate the English word Power to "li liang", "shi li" or "quan li" in Chinese. Among these translations, "li liang" is a neutral and “in-itself” concept, usually used to denote weight or character. The concept of "shi li" not only expresses weight and character, but also embodies the extended force beyond what is “in itself”, which is to realize the potential to be “for itself”. As to "quan li", its concept signifies that its form of power has already been exerted and channeled “outwards”. In discussing "EU as a power" or “what kind of power is the EU”, we hold that EU is a neutral and “in-itself power” as a basis for further discussion. We shall review its composition, the elements and fashion of its “for-itself” potential, and finally, its incorporation of all forms of power to become shili, a manifestation of “special power” that is vitally important in affecting the world’s development progress. The EU is acting on the world stage with its huge economic power, meticulous governing power, and profound cultural power, which can often play the role that “national power” wishes but cannot achieve. However, the EU also has many inherent shortcomings and disadvantages, which makes it hard to fully exert its power as a sovereign nation state. Therefore, there is a gap between the EU’s potential international status and its de facto roles in the world.

I. How to Evaluate the EU’s Economic Power?

In aggregate economic terms, the EU is undeniably “one pole of the world”. First of all, its gross domestic product has surpassed that of the United States and leaves Japan far behind the race; its economic competitiveness has not declined, and its cross-national firms equally match their American counterparts; the education quality of its population is amongst the best in the world; most of its member states use the Euro, which is now the largest currency after the Dollar. The adoption of the Euro not only facilitates the integration of EU member states but also the progress of the EU to become one pole in a multi-polar world. Euro has smashed the Dollar’s domination and even surpassed the Dollar in several sectors of the international financial market, which contributes to the stabilization and balance of the international financial system.

What’s equally important is that the EU, with its huge economy in aggregate terms, is enjoying its own unique life style, distributing wealth and welfare according to its own principles, and acting in accordance with a unique set of principles. This uniqueness generates two effects aside from those by the EU’s aggregate economic strength: the regulating effect and the modeling effect. By utilizing economic and non-economic resources as well as the powers of member states, the EU has brought into play its general advantage to become a regulating power in the world economy with a structure of 27+1. Moreover, the EU has joined hands with the US, with a combined GDP accounting for 40% of the world total, to work out 80% of the international rules and norms. Thus, a de facto G2 management structure has been formed in various multilateral institutions. Meanwhile, the EU has provided the world with a regional model for balancing the development of the economy, society and natural resources. It rejects “free-market fundamentalism”, gives equal attention to both employment and growth, and to the simultaneous progress of the market and society; it insists on flexible security, social inclusion, and environmental protection. It represents a mode of coordination and a balancing force with strong European characteristics, and sets a good example for middle and small countries coming together to defend their interests and identities in the face of globalization. The aggregate economy of the EU, as well as its  regulating and modeling effects, have jointly formed the EU’s overall strength as one pole of the world economy.

In assessing the EU’s overall economic strength, we also should recognize that as a unique regional economy, the European Economic Community and the Euro Zone has never been exempted from the need to deal with its own inherent weaknesses and has repeatedly suffered shocks from the US-style economic globalization. The US and the Dollar-led force of globalization, and the EU and Euro led force of regionalization, have took advantage of and boosted each other under the context of globalization, as well as competed and impeded against each other in the context of regionalization. The differences within the EU have constantly given rise to disputes which hamper the EU’s internal cooperation, keeping the EU and the Euro under constant threat, such as that from the US and the Dollar competition. Though the EU currently is an important pole in the world, there exists a gap between the potential status of the EU (particularly the Euro) and its de facto roles. Therefore, the EU must continue to fuse its sources of power to form a more formidable economic strength.

II. How is the EU Governed?

Compared with other poles in the world, the most outstanding characteristic of the EU is that it is a regional organization, not a nation state. But the EU is not a conventional international organization, but a conglomeration of member states which together gain the status of a world pole. Its power does not simply come by combining those of all the member states; instead, the member states’ powers have sometimes boosted while sometimes countered against each other. To realize the political ideal of “a united Europe”, and to integrate nations with various characteristics and political structures into the Union, the EU has created necessary legal, institutional and procedural instruments to produce its own regulative, executive, as well as restraining power.

The regulating power of EU law arose from the legalization of the political ideal of “a united Europe”. Laws created by the EU applicable to all member states have brought conflicts and disputes between member states into the framework of legal mediation and arbitration. EU law has therefore driven the member states to maintain self-restraint, and has given the EU legal personality on the world stage. Meanwhile, EU law and the European Court of Justice have become the force-in-itself that furthers the integration process, which is undoubtedly unprecedented in the institutional history of human kind. The legal integration of the EU is unbalanced: in areas with a higher level of legal integration, the EU’s influence towards the outside world is apparently larger than in areas with a lower level of integration. This means that the improvement of the EU’s international status and its effectiveness on the world stage relies, to a large extent, on the progress of its legal integration.

The EU’s operation mechanism is not a mere extension of the corresponding nation state’s operation mechanism, but an institutional innovation aimed to solve problems of nation states. The EU’s operation mechanism shares similarities with other member states, but also has clearly different “supranational” characteristics. This complex mechanism not only shows federal and confederal characteristics, but also presents different forms of decision making in various aspects and fields of governance. Accordingly, its demonstration of power varies in form on different occasions or subjects. This is why there exists a palpable distance between the EU’s strength in world politics and in the world economy – a giant in economy and a pygmy in politics. The EU’s unbalanced “plural and compound” mechanism, as well as its “multi-covenant governance”, determines its shifting style in executing its powers, which is unique in an international community dominated by sovereign nation states.

The uniqueness of the EU also stems from the fact that it tries to achieve its objectives not simply by legal and administrative powers, but also by direct mobilization of various power sources in the EU’s multi-layered society, to serve its major objectives. Such governance has transcended governmental behaviors in the traditional sense. With a non-power orientation, it turns directly to ethnic groups, corporate agents, spokespersons of common interests or professional lobbyists within and outside of the EU, to achieve anticipated targets through “soft” processes, such as persistent consultation, examination, promotion, as well as mutual influence or adjustment. The crisscrossed operation of hard law, administrative procedures, and soft rules provides the EU with new methods of governance: supranational decision-making, common policy-making, intergovernmental consultation, and Open-Method-of-Coordination. These methods are not renowned for being time efficient, but can generate huge influences with every small step made. Thanks to this, the unprecedented European integration process has never deviated from its original cause of self strengthening through unity.

III. The EU’s Military and Civilian Power

There has been different opinions on the question: how the EU has used its power in its foreign relations to realize its interests and maintain its image. The common view is that due to its special characteristics as a non-nation state, the EU cannot successfully organize and mobilize its overall strength to become a force that corresponds to its weight in the world. Since military power is an essential component of overall strength, asking for help from the US in key international conflicts has been considered a sign of weakness in the EU’s overall strength.

The lack of a common military force and repeated damages to their image and interests have forced EU member states to seek persistently for a EU security and defense regime, and substantial progress has been made. The Europeans have already been convinced that “without military capabilities, Europe will be no more than a “paper tiger”. This concern has been illustrated in the emergence of the European Rapid Reaction Force, the birth of the EU Security Strategy, and the establishment of the European Defense Agency. To protect its interests and identity in the complex and changing world, the EU must possess a military force that is able to guarantee the stability of its society and the safety of its economy, as well as the promulgation of its political agenda and values. Since the Kosovo War, the building of an EU military force has been on a fast track. So far, the EU has preliminarily established a military force  independent of the NATO, and has shifted from being in a supporting role in international security affairs to an influential power for world safety.

Although the contrast between its military and economic power is comparable to that of a “pygmy and giant”, the EU is nevertheless a vital player on the world stage. The reason is that there are multiple challenges from the outside, and thus, the EU should also have multiple responding measures. In an era when military power is no longer a representation of overall strength, the EU has put various policy instruments, in which it specializes, at its disposal in areas such as foreign trade, foreign aid, and policy dialogue. Unlike the US, the EU puts no emphasis on “conquering the world with force”, but attaches importance to “changing the world through regulation”. Compared with the US’ military force, the EU’s regulatory power is intrinsically “soft” but “hard” in performance; it equally represents the EU’s strength in mobilizing resources and accumulating powers to achieve its goals. In the long run, it can even attain objectives that cannot possibly be attained with sophisticated weapons.

Defining the EU’s foreign policy instruments simply as “hard power” or “soft power” does not give a comprehensive picture. In fact, the EU is very adept at employing both soft and hard tactics. These tactics as well as joint efforts of military and civilian operations have been exhibited in the employment of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The functioning of the EU has radiated the EU’s influence as “a model” through joint declarations and non- coercive common positions, as well as demonstrated its coercive influence by enforcing coercive common positions. The EU possesses the capacity for both military and civilian operations, and hence plays a role different from that of the US.

IV. The EU’s Self-awareness and World View

Probably no other major pole in the world would ask itself continually as Europe would: “What is ‘Europe’European Union?” “What does ‘EU’ want?” Europe is not Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain plus the smaller European countries, nor is it the Council of the EU plus the European Commission plus the European Parliament plus the European Court of Justice, neither is it a conglomeration of European territories with 27 different colors on the world map. The Europeans in the EU speak 23 different official languages and cherish legacies and legends of their own histories, yet they do not have a single official language, an endearing capital city, nor an inspiring national anthem. What should the European Union be? Why are such-and-such its rules? These questions appear all the more significant as the Europeans reach out to the world: If the EU is not based on common values, or if its communities are not based on values, how can it self-consciously play its role in the world? An unself-conscious EU can amount to a force-in-itself, but it can never simultaneously become a force-for-itself and a force that plays its role self-consciously. Having recognized this point clearly, the Europeans have diligently searched their history for common values, and would create one if they eventually failed to find any.

The EU common values created by the Europeans are all high-sounding ideals: freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, solidarity, and "unity in diversity" (can be translated as “harmony without uniformity”). These ideals respectively date back to certain periods of European history, and have subsequently been preserved as treasures. Disgraceful concetps such as Social Darwinism and Fascism have been discarded. By summarizing, generalizing, refining and spreading those positive principles, the EU has seized the moral high ground, and has armed and consolidated itself, as well as legitimized its existence and evolution. With the question of “who am I” answered, the EU began to understand the world afresh through self-reflection, while deciding on their attitude and conduct towards the outside world.


Refined ideals advocated by the Europeans: freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, solidarity, and diversity are widely promulgated and applied. Multilateralism is implemented in virtue of “collaboration”, “coordination”, “persuasion”, “assurance”, and through Europe’s long-term influence in the world. To bring such a world order into reality, the Europeans, who are embedded with the sense of superiority as selected by the God, and the sense of duty to spread the gospel, have a high expectation of the EU to export their values. And they have expressed this expectation through various channels or in different ways.

Therefore, the EU’s self-awareness has served two purposes: 1. to strengthen internal solidarity and to garner support among member states; 2. to recreate the world with its own mould. Some member states have been persistently promoting their own “value oriented diplomacy”, to use values as a moral weapon to add pressure on others. “Harmony without uniformity” has thus been treated as a means, instead of a fundamental principle or universal value. The principle of “diversity”, upon which the EU has relied for its existence and development, has been neglected in the Europeans’ own world view system. As a result, the EU is similar to the US in terms of ideology and is difficult to become an independent world pole in this respect.

V. The EU in the Process of Economic Globalization and Global Multi-polarization

Is the world moving from globalization to a world as one, or shall it develop “harmony without uniformity” thanks to global multi-polarization? What is the link between economic globalization and global multi-polarization? The complexity of these questions is best represented in the European integration process. To answer those questions, one must understand the evolution of the world market and its significance for the European integration before envisioning the direction of the development of the world’s structure from the perspective of the European integration.

The world before the end of the cold war had two major markets: the East and the West. The world market today is increasingly multi-layered: rules of the World Trade Organization regulate the globalized market; regional organizations work out economic rules within their regions; nations also have their own market rules. The power system that supports the world market does not completely overlap with that which supports the regional markets or the national markets. Hence, markets tend to move in different directions. The interrelation and the mutual interactions between them shall shape the future development of the world system and therefore deserves our attention. Yet, disagreement exists. Some believe that due to the rapid rise of developing countries, “the dominance of the advanced capitalist countries in America and Europe has been broken, which indicates that a major and fundamental change and transformation shall take place in the international economic system”; globalization has led to the development of underdeveloped regions, while the regionalization movement led by the EU provides an alternative solution to globalization. Consequently, regionalization is a precondition for multi-polarization. Some others contend that globalization and the European integration are in fact cause and effect to each other, though they may appear to be opposite movements. The European integration is a means by the EU to confront globalization, which gives the EU a greater say in global affairs and stimulates the world’s healthy development in the direction of multi-polarization. Still others insist that economic globalization and regional integration are the same in one respect: both of them are the process of the optimization of resource allocation expanding from a few countries to many other countries. The difference is that regional integration is established by concerned nations through the form of treaties, whereas globalization is propelled by activities from multinational corporations; the optimization of resource allocation in regional integration is limited to the member states, while globalization can reach every corner of the world according to the needs of the operations by multinational corporations. After all, although the EU is an inseparable union of nations, it is not yet a single-interest collective group. The US has continuously attempted to manipulate EU policy making with help from the pro-American members within the EU, but cannot change the EU’s role as a world pole.

VI. EU’s Policy towards China and EU-China Relationship

In recent years, a series of new problems have arisen in the relationship between the EU and China. In November 2007, the 10th EU-China Summit saw immense difficulty in delivering a Joint Communiqué. After the events of March 14th, 2008, Europe and the US criticized China in a joint statement. The Olympic Torch Relay was subsequently disturbed in London and Paris, while the European media conducted distorted reports and malicious assaults on China. All these incidents have put the EU-China strategic and cooperative partnership under test.

Whether to form ties or to confront each other, the EU and China cannot avoid the themes of economic globalization and global multi-polarization. In a bipolar world system, cooperation and mutual learning between the EU and China have contributed to the process of both economic globalization and global multi-polarization. Since the reform and opening to the outside world in China, there has been a constant influx of European aid and investment. Large companies have based their operations in China, and have brought capital, technology, and management experiences necessary for China’s growth, at the same time rewarding European investors with profits and providing European consumers with cheap and fine products. As the EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson proudly said, if China is a rocket equipped with three engines – trade, investment, and technology – then the EU has added impetus to all these engines.

Economic globalization shall breed disagreements between China and the EU. Each component within the EU – the administrative institutions, the member states, the European media, as well as the political parties and interest groups – is adjusting its own attitude towards China in accordance with its own advantage or disadvantage, as well as its own gains or losses, in the process of globalization, and thus, contradictions within the Union arises. To maintain and improve their global competitiveness, the EU member states are painfully regrouping social interests and redistributing social wealth. The pressure they shoulder varies with their different levels of development and institutional structures. During this great transformation, some European countries or groups are benefiting from economic globalization, while others are still stumbling on the path in balancing various interests. The losers seek for scapegoats around the world, and an unhealthy social mentality spreads. Advocates of free trade and advocates of protectionism confront each other in a ferocious game by taking advantage of the loopholes within the EU’s decision making system. In these circumstances, China and its affairs may be captured as a scapegoat by the European system of political discourse and political interest groups in their internal struggles.

The European integration helps Europe move towards globalization, and also helps preserves its own interests and characteristics during the process of globalization. The world as a result appears to become more plural, diversified and multi-polar. Likewise, China, through its self reforms, seizes the opportunities created by globalization, and maintains Chinese characteristics while seeking development at the same time. Although different in characteristics and measures, China and Europe face the same challenges. This sets the stage for China and Europe in developing new areas for further cooperation. In this era which saw huge changes in human history, China and the EU should not only seek to solve specific issues separately, but ,more importantly, recognize the direction of human history, work together in the face of globalization, understand and tolerate each other in protecting regional/national identity, support and learn from each other in balancing different interests, and jointly construct a multi-polar world in the context of globalization.

editor: Zhou Hong


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