With its share of 14% of world’s trade in goods, the European Union (EU) is among the most prominent global players in international trade (Eurostat, 2022). In terms of trade in services, the EU recorded the immense value of 1,771,048 million US dollars in 2016, in both export and import combined (OECD, 2016). Over the last years, the EU, which negotiates on behalf of its 27 member states, has proven its strong position by reaching favourable trade agreements with numerous countries and regions worldwide. Indeed, the EU is a world-leading actor and has the capacity to influence or even shape thy dynamics of international trade. Nonetheless, the ways in which the EU exercises its power through trade to achieve its non-trade objectives have not been thoroughly explored and explanation of these phenomena is still problematic. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the debate and answer how the EU exercises its power through different trade activities.

The concept of power 

The concept of power is central to the study of International Relations. However, since power is such a broad concept, no agreement has been reached among scholars on its universal definition (Baldwin, 2002). Realists tend to associate it with, or even measure it by, possession of certain resources (e.g., population, size of territory, military expenditure), or intangible factors, such as the quality of political leadership (Baldwin, 2002), whereas others apply a relational power approach which assumes that power is the ability to influence and control how other actors in the international system behave (Dahl, 1957). They claim that power should not be viewed as static, but as dynamic and active.

Various theorists criticised disciplinary debates for favouring the realist perspectives towards power and called for more comprehensive approaches where different forms of power are considered, and where various factors that impact actors’ capacity to purse goals are accounted for (Schmidt, 2005). Lukes (2005) argued that studying how power is exercised should not be limited to observable conflicts and claimed that one can also exercise power through influencing and determining preferences, perceptions and wants of other actors and thusly ensuring the compliance with the status quo. Based on Lukes’ (2005) contribution to the debate, a framework called ’powercube’ was developed. It offers a multi-dimensional approach through enabling examination of different forms of power (visible, hidden, invisible), levels at which power operates (global, national, local, domestic), and spaces in which power is exercised (open, invited, closed) (Gaventa and Pettit, 2011). This paper will apply the ’powercube’ to analyse forms of power exercised by the EU owing to framework’s comprehensiveness and inclusion of different, often interrelating, aspects of power.

Visible power 

The most explicit and direct forms of power can be described as visible. The assumption is that decision-making processes are observable, thus, by seeing who participates in arenas, winners and losers (or the powerful and the powerless) can be easily identified (Gaventa and Pettit, 2011). Visible forms of power usually stem from legal authority and can be noticed in formal decision-making bodies or public spaces where ’actors’ interests are expressed as ’policy preferences’ and one can gauge how often these preferences win out over those of others” (MacDonald, 2011, p. 35).

The visible power exercised by the EU can be observed in its attempts to influence the behaviour of Russia following the attack on Ukraine in February 2022. The EU has adopted comprehensive and robust packages of restrictive sanctions designed specifically to diminish Russia’s economic base. Despite some criticism and controversy surrounding the effectiveness of sanctions, the international organisation instrumentalised its trade power by enforcing a series of restrictive economic measures (e.g., import and export bans, asset freezes, and prohibition of certain business-relevant services) in order to force the violator to agree to a political settlement. By imposing clear economic and political costs on Russias political elite, the EU did not only cripple the Kremlins ability to finance the invasion but it also internationally denounced Russia’s actions for threatening the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine (European Commision, 2022). This demonstrates that the EU is able to implement trade sanctions to influence or limit another actor’s actions if these are in inconsistent or in conflict with the EU’s preferences.

Hidden power

The ’powercube’ also incorporates more implicit and exclusive form of power, namely, the hidden power. Dominant actors can exercise their power by agenda setting, framing issues, limiting alternatives, and creating barriers for participation in decision-making. All these activities help in controlling the game as the rules are more favourable to those in power. As famously suggested by Schattschneider (1960, p. 71), ‘mobilisation of biasoccurs when ‘some issues are organised into politics while others are organised out’. This indicates that the source of power may lie in filtering out or simply ignoring certain issues while drawing attention to other matters, consequently, limiting the capacity of some actors to challenge or change the status quo.

In terms of the EU, the Ex ante conditionalities (ExAC) can be regarded as instances of hidden power. ExAC are groups of requirements and standards which have to be met by a country as a prerequisite for the ratification of agreements with the EU, hence, they are crucial to the EU’s cohesion policy (European Commission, 2021). Recently, the EU has expanded its scope of political conditionality by including human rights and environmental standards in trade agreements to encourage social and sustainable development (Koch, 2015). Before the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific states came into force in 2003, issues essential to the agreement, such as bribery and corruption had to be dealt with by the potential trade partners (Hadfield, 2007). This indicates that only those actors that fulfill certain sets of criteria determined by the EU can profit from commercial cooperation with one of the world-leading players. Thus, by using access to its market, the EU is able to exert an influence on the domestic arena of its trade partners. Moreover, the performance of these actors is constantly monitored and assessed by the EU – if an actor fails to meet some crucial criteria, the benefits may be terminated
(Koch, 2015). This, in turn, contributes to promoting the view that rules created by the international organisation should be regarded as common norms, which is associated with the concept of invisible power analysed in the subsequent section.

Invisible power

The least direct and obvious form of power is referred to as invisible. Invisible power involves the diffusion of standards, values, ideologies and principles by dominant actors, which are adopted by powerless actors unaware that they cease to have their own interests and preferences in the process (Gaventa and Pettit, 2011). As highlighted by Lukes (2005, p.82), dominant actors are unconsciously able to ”secure compliance [of the powerless] by controlling their thoughts and desires”, and also ”by stunting or blunting their capacity for rational judgment” (Lukes, 2005, p.115). Thus, power can be also viewed as a passive capacity that does not have to be exercised to influence other actors behaviour. Such conceptualisation is in agreement with Cranston’s (1971, p.177) stance: ’the mere reputation for power, unsupported by acts of power, can be sufficient to restrict (…) decisionmaking’.

Basic ideological notions of the EU are: democracy, human dignity, equality, liberty, the rule of law and the respect for human rights (Skolimowska, 2012, p. 117). The diffusion of such values among other actors without the EU’s engagement may stem from the EU’s reputation and leading position in major international institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Countries or regions that are attracted by the economic and social success of the EU may unconsciously follow the suit and thereby contribute to the perception of the EU’s norms not only as beneficial, but also as natural and unchangeable (Lukes, 2005). Since the EU is a prominent member of the WTO, those with less power may unknowingly treat the dominant actor as a benchmark when negotiating, making decisions, establishing standards or even setting their own objectives within areas that can be both related and unrelated to trade. Nonetheless, it is rather complicated to extensively demonstrate the examples of invisible power and to prove its impact in international politics since the notion itself is abstract and difficult to conceptualise.

The ’powercube’ framework has helped to demonstrate that the EU has the capacity to and exercises its power through trade. Using the example of restrictive sanctions against Russia, it was shown that the international organisation attempts to achieve its non-trade objectives by instrumentalising certain trade-related activities. The EU also uses more implicit methods such as the Ex ante conditionalities in order to impact domestic arenas of its trade partners. Furthermore, the EU has the ability to influence behaviours of states by passive diffusion of norms and values. Owing to its reputation and leading position in leading multilateral institutions, it has the capacity to unconsciously set standards, frame decisions and shape objectives of other actors. Discussions on the definition and dimensions of power are crucial since how the concept is understood and perceived affects how much power is allocated to different actors.

Author: Przemysław Kurlandt


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