International Relations

Is the EU a normative power? The case of European Energy Policy

Dinu CODREANU (2015), College of Europe, Masters EU International Relations & Diplomacy Studies.  


The realist theory of international relations is considered today the dominant one. After the failure of the Wilsonian liberalism, symbolised by the League of Nations crumble, the realist perspective characterized the Cold War era. In this Realpolitik world, a different way of conceiving international relations slowly emerged with the European construction. Based on a common traumatic history, shared values but also shared interests, this new political entity has raised numerous debates about its interactions with the outside world.

Amongst the flurry of theories about the international role of the European Union (EU), a popular perspective came with Ian Manners in 2002 and his normative power theory. According to him, normative power is the “ability to shape conceptions of ‘normal’ in international relations.[1] The EU acts as a normative power by exporting its norms and in a broader way, changing the legal framework of the international system to make it more similar to its own image. According to this logic, knowing that the EU is considered a bastion of democracy, human rights, rule of law, good governance etc., we can assume that ensuring this set of values would be at the core of its foreign policy. However, reality is often different from theory and as mentioned before, the realist view of international relations is still the dominant one.

Therefore the question of knowing to what extend the EU is a normative power arises. This essay will argue that EU tends to act as a normative power, but when its immediate security interests are threaten, it becomes a more ‘realist’ actor. I will take the example of the external aspects of EU’s energy policy to illustrate this position as the history of European integration started with the European Coal and Steel Community. Indeed, by pooling the coal resources (the main source of energy at that time), France and Germany had defied national self-interest and established norms to prevent future wars. This example is encouraging but reproducing it in EU’s external relations is more challenging. The Article 194(1) of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) mentions the EU’s policy on energy shall:

“(a) ensure the functioning of the energy market;

(b) ensure security of energy supply in the Union;

(c) promote energy efficiency and energy saving and the development of new and renewable forms of      energy; and

(d) promote the interconnection of energy networks.”[2]

This essay will use two aspects of EU’s energy policy (which have external ramifications) as a framework for its argumentation. The first section focuses on the environmental aspect of energy policy, with the promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy (c). The second section analyses the energy security related aspects (b), notably the relation with the Russia.

       I/ Exporting sustainability in the neighborhood and the world

According to the theory of Normative Power Europe (NPE), EU’s action should be based on a series of values/norms, I. Manners enumerating 5 “core” and 4 “minor” norms.[3] The most adapted element related to energy policy would be minor norm ‘sustainable development’, found in the Treaty on European Union (TEU).[4] In this field and especially regarding renewable energy, EU is leading through example. In 2012, was the second biggest producer of clean energy, 22.3% of its production and 14.1% of its consumption coming from renewable sources.[5] Thus the norm of sustainable development is respected and promoted inside the EU. We will look closely at how the EU exports this particular norm.

The most flagrant example of NPE in the field of energy would be the European Energy Community (EEC). Established in 2005, it clearly states that its main objective is to export EU’s acquis communautaire related to energy to the contracting parties. Initially it focused on restoring the Balkan Peninsula’s energy network but expanded its geographical scope in 2010. Today, the signatories of this international agreement are the EU, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, FYROM, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine. The acquis communautaire implemented by EEC contracting parties consists of 25 directives and some additional competition provisions, making it a medium-term process to adopt them and a long-term one to implement the normative changes. Through the promotion of market liberalization in the gas, oil and electricity sectors, the member parties are also required to follow certain environmental norms and policies promoting renewable energies.

Basically the EU links trade-related norms relative to energy to sustainable development. This comes as a manifestation of NPE, exporting norms promoting the “minor” norm of sustainable development. When excreting normative power, the EU looks to impact at a structural level and induce durable compartmental changes. Moreover, by changing the nature of its counterparts, the EU can deal easily with these ‘Europeanised’ partners in the future. Manners describes this form of norm diffusion as “transference”.[6] This means that the norms are accompanied with financial and technical support if they are correctly implemented. This type norm promotion fits in the wider context of the Association Agreements signed with the non-EU parties of the EEC.

In the context of the Southern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the 2008-2013 Priority Action Plan for Euro-Mediterranean Energy Cooperation sets the tone to the relations concerning the energy sector. The goals are similar to EEC’s regarding norms: harmonize the legislations and promote clean energies. This partnership is not yet as advanced as the ECC one but the goal is the same: the “creation of an integrated and interconnected Euro-Mediterranean energy market.[7] The promotion of renewable energies will pass through norms and also through a series of concrete projects. This kind of initiatives are not only specific to the ENP. The EU exports energy sustainability norms in the developing world (notably in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa) through its environmental and development policies. In this regard 3.3 billion euros will be allocated during the 2014-2020 period to support the implementation of sustainable energy projects in over 30 developing countries.[8]

The promotion of clean sources of energy, especially in the North Africa region, serves also the objective of ensuring the energy security of EU through diversification. However, the main concerns today regarding this issue are linked to Russia.

        II/ Metamorphism in energy security: from NPE to realism

When dealing with Russia and the post-communist states, a normative approach was tempted with the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), an initiative launched by EU after the fall of the Soviet Union. Signed by 51 states and the EU in 1994, the Treaty entered into force in 1998. Tackling energy on a multilateral normative basis gives ECT a unique flavour. The Treaty has provisions relative to market liberalization, dispute settlement and sustainable development. The Treaty’s norms are largely of European nature. In this case the EU uses a “procedural” diffusion type, by institutionalizing, formalizing and giving a framework in dealing with energy-related matters.[9] The Treaty can be seen as an externalisation of the EU’s energy policy, spreading a common sets of norms outside its territory. Behind this innovative treaty, EU’s main objective was to ensure its energy security. Indeed, the aim is to protect net importers as EU from geopolitical aléas by liberalizing the energy markets. In this way, state companies cannot be used as a geopolitical leverage tools

The ECT is interesting also as a strategy in dealing with Russia on energy matters. Indeed, EU’s main source of energy is the Russian Federation (33.7% of crude oil and 32% of gas imported in EU came from Russia in 2012).[10] If Russia would become a contracting part of ECT, it would level the playing field for the EU. By singing and ratifying the treaty, Russia would have to take into account environmental considerations when exploiting energy resources.[11] These environmental considerations would increase the price of exploration for state-owned companies like Gazprom. Combined with the obligations to liberalize the energy market, the Russian state would be forced to sell shares to the private sector, losing one of its main geopolitical assets.[12] This situation is unacceptable to Vladimir Putin for core strategic reasons, the oil being the source of a rising Russia. Therefore, the treaty was never ratified by the State Duma.

Through the ECT, the EU transformed energy, traditionally seen as an element of high-politics, into an economic commodity. Through norm promotion, the EU tried to ease geopolitical tensions that could appear because of energy-related trade disputes. Basically, with ECT, EU used a set of norms to promote, very modestly, environmental protection and renewable energy but also to reach its energy security goals. However, the main target of this treaty, the Russian Federation, did not become a contracting party thus limiting considerably the reach of its normative strategy.

However, when confronted to crises like the 2006-2007 one relative to the Ukrainian-Russian gas dispute, the EU is tending to forget about its normative power strategy and the role of member states is determinant. Two main reasons could be the cause of this tactical shift. First, the normative power strategy is a long-term strategy because it seeks durable impact inside a given state or region. Indeed it goes in hand with the Steven Keukeleire’s structural foreign policy theory, which seeks to impact the durable elements and changing structurally a state.[13] When a crisis occurred, the priority is to defuse it and long-term strategies are not appropriate when rapid action is needed, especially when 80% of gas transported to the EU passed through Ukraine.[14] Secondly, as when dealing with hard security related issues, the EU member states tend to take the place of the European Commission, as seen recently in the 2014 East-Ukrainian crisis. According to the TFEU, energy policy is a shared competence of the EU and the member states, allowing the members states to interfere.[15] Moreover, numerous big economies in Europe are dependent on Russian energy imports. Countries like Germany and Italy are importing 37% and 29% respectively of their total gas supplies.[16] This is causing European member states to negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally with Russia, seeking to ensure the immediate, national interests.


The EU is a normative power when it has the opportunity. NPE is manifesting itself when linking energy policy to environmental concerns, development programs and trade. However, the EU is still not a high-politics player because of the lack of legal means and member states predominance in this field. Normative power in external energy policy is excreted successfully at a limited scale. The success of exporting norms in the EEC and developing countries but also the failure to do so in case of big strategic players as Russia with the ECT shows that a normative strategy exists for the energy policy. However, when core energy security interests are threaten, the EU is quickly eclipsed by member states diplomacies, more realist in nature. This observation gives us an interesting point: the EU is not becoming itself a realist actor but it lets the member states act this way, thus preserving its ‘clean’ image of a normative power.


Bindi Federiga, Angelescu Irina, The Foreign Policy of the European Union, Brookings Institute Press, Washington D.C. 2012, 2nd edition

“Conscious uncoupling”, The Economist, 5th April 2014 retrieved the 13 November 2014

Council of the European Union, Priority Action Plan for Euro-Mediterranean Energy Cooperation 2008-2013, Brussels, 2007

Dreyer Iana, Stang Gerald, Energy moves and power shifts – EU foreign policy and global energy security, EU Institute for Security Studies, February 2014

Energy Charter Secretariat, The Energy Charter Treaty and related documents, 2004

European Commission, DG Development and Cooperation, Empowering development, Brussels, 2014, retrieved the 11 November 2014

European Commission, Press Release, EU boosts its cooperation on sustainable energy with developing countries, Brussels, 22 September 2014

European Energy Community web-site, consulted the 12 November 2014

Eurostat, Renewable Energy Statistics, March 2014 retrieved the 14 November 2014

Eurostat, Energy production and imports, March 2014

“EU reaches gas deal with Ukraine”, BBC News, 1 August 2009, retrieved the 13 November 2014

Keukeleire Steven, The Foreign Policy of the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 2nd edition, p.259

Jayne Sarah, The European Union as a Normative Power: Europe’s new Neighborhood and Energy policies, Master’s thesis, Atlanta Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, 2009

Manners Ian, Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in terms? JCMS Vol. 40, Number 2, 2002

[1] I. Manners, Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in terms?, JCMS Vol. 40, Number 2, 2002, p.239

[2] European Union, “Consolidated Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”, Official Journal of the European Union, C 326/47, 26.10.2012, Art.194

[3] I. Manners, op. cit. p.242

[4] European Union, “Consolidated Versions of the Treaty on European Union”, Official Journal of the European Union, C 326/13, 26.10.2012, Art.3

[5] Eurostat, Renewable Energy Statistics, March 2014

[6] I. Manners, op. cit. p.245

[7] Council of the European Union, Priority Action Plan for Euro-Mediterranean Energy Cooperation 2008-2013, Brussels, 2007, p.11

[8] European Commission, Press Release, EU boosts its cooperation on sustainable energy with developing countries, Brussels, 22 September 2014

[9] I. Manners, op. cit. p.244

[10] Eurostat, Energy production and imports, March 2014

[11] Energy Charter Secretariat, The Energy Charter Treaty and related documents, 2004, Art.19

[12] Energy Charter Secretariat, Ibid. Art.6

[13] S. Keukeleire, The Foreign Policy of the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 2nd edition, p.259

[14]“EU reaches gas deal with Ukraine”, BBC News, 1 August 2009

[15] European Union, “Consolidated Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”, Official Journal of the European Union, C 326/47, 26.10.2012, Art.4

[16] “Conscious uncoupling”, The Economist, 5th April 2014

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