Conceptualizing EU Actorness

The TRIGGER project aims at providing advice and support for the European Commission to increase their actorness, effectiveness, and influence in global governance. This can be a challenge because, the international system is founded by nation states, but the EU and its institutions are not a nation state, but an entity sui generis.  Yet, with the process of increasing integration and transfer of sovereignty to the European Union (EU), the EU has become an actor in international processes in many policy domains. Through the pooling of activities and joint representation, the EU can have more influence on international decision-making processes than individual member states. However, the EU does not have the responsibility for a representation of the member states in all policy domains. While this is largely the case for e.g. trade policies, the member states still have the competence to develop defence and security policies. Further, the member states maintain their influence through the European institutions, also in policy domains with a high level of integration. For example, even in a highly centralized policy area such as trade, the member states ensure that they remain involved in the decision-making process at least through the European Council.

Acting jointly has many advantages. If Europe is able to promote its values at the global level, this has advantages for the EU: Many contemporary problems can be dealt with effectively only at this global level. Against this background, we ask under which conditions is the EU is able to act as a single actor at the international level: What are the internal and what are the international requirements for this? A core concept for exploring this is the notion of actorness.

Many distinguished scholars have analysed and contributed to the concept of “actorness” of the EU. Most of them use Sjöstedts definition from 1977 as a starting point: Actorness is the “capacity to behave actively and deliberately in relation to other actors in the international system”. However, there is no agreement among scholars on a shared concept for actorness. Furthermore, most contributions remain on the level of conceptual and theoretical contributions, eventually underpinned by case studies.

The ambition of TRIGGER goes beyond: We aim for an operationalization, modelling and measurement of actorness. Our task is, therefore, to go through the literature, understand the different approaches towards defining actorness and distil a model for actorness, which can be used as a foundation for measuring actorness within the TRIGGER project in different policy areas. In a second step, we propose indicators for measuring the different dimensions of actorness, both quantitative and qualitative indicators.

The TRIGGER Model for Actorness

Our first step was integrating the findings from the literature into a coherent model, which reflects the different dimensions of actorness and the context in which the EU is operating. The literature differentiates between the internal dimension of actorness, and the external dimension. The former refers to the properties of the EU, the legal framework conditions, policy preferences, and so forth. The latter describes the context in which the EU is operating: current trends in global governance, the perception of the EU by other actors in the global arena, etc.

We ended up with seven dimensions of actorness:

  • The internal dimensions
    • Authority: This dimension refers to the legal competences that the EU has in a specific policy area. These competences are laid out in the Treaties of the European Union, but may also be complemented by issue-specific agreements.
    • Autonomy: The dimension of “authority” complements the dimension of authority in the sense, that if an actor has the legal rights to act, it is not necessarily able to, if the actor does not have the means to exert power. Hence, this dimension of actorness refers to the resources and capabilities to act. Mostly, this refers to the agenda setting powers of the EU in relation to the member states. In our understanding, it also includes the power of the EU to set the international agenda, and to frame and define debates according to the EU’s view of a problem.
    • Cohesion: In the context of TRIGGER, we will define “cohesion” as a consistent line of argument, meaning that the involved nation states are “speaking with one voice” and share the same policy preferences in a specific policy area.
  • Credibility and trust: As a fourth internal dimension of actorness, we identified credibility and trust in the EU with regard to its capacities to achieve goals and to be reliable and trustworthy when it comes to agreements. This dimension does not only have an internal aspect (perception of the EU’s credibility in the MS), but extends to the external dimension as well as it also is crucial that the EU is perceived credible and trustworthy by its counterparts in the international arena.
  • The external dimension
    • Recognition: For being able to effectively push for her goals, it is first of all crucial that the EU is recognized as an actor and legitimate negotiation partner by other actors in the international system. Hence, looking at the perception of the EU within the international system is crucial to understanding her role in International Relations.
    • Attractiveness: Attractiveness goes beyond the recognition of the EU by other actors in the international system and refers to the willingness to cooperate with the EU. It describes how much other actors perceive cooperation with the EU as something worth striving for. It is defined by both, the economic attractiveness of the EU, but also the values and norms or the EU’s soft powers.
    • Opportunity/ necessity to act: Lastly, the developments and constellations in the international arena are one factor that also determines the degree to which the EU can be an actor. This includes both, the options to act when new economic or other opportunities emerge and external threats that may thread peace or the economic and social well-being of the EU and its citizens.

Secondly, we also browsed the academic literature to find determinants of effectiveness and found that in the case of effectiveness, internal and external framework conditions are also relevant:

  • The internal dimension
    • Constellation of interests: EU’s main objective(s) in the international negotiations e.g. it could be conservative, reformist, demandeur, extreme or moderate objectives
    • Bargaining configuration: use of resources and tools to support its agenda e.g. technical and financial resources, etc.
    • Diplomatic engagement: reaching out to third parties, communication, signalling preferences, building coalitions, and bringing forward sensible compromise proposals.
  • The external dimension
    • Policy arena: setup of the stage based on the characteristics of the policy area and the complexity of the issues. For example, overlap across bilateral and multilateral agreements, conflicts and confusions in the international and bilateral obligations, etc.

For analysing EU actorness and effectiveness in specific policy areas, it is helpful to visualise how these dimensions relate to global governance. We therefore developed a model, which describes the relationship between the different dimensions of actorness and effectiveness and global governance:

The Way Forward

This TRIGGER model for actorness helps us to understand the relationships between the different dimensions. As it is our goal to evaluate EU actorness in different policy areas, we know have to make these dimensions measurable, i.e. defining indicators, which describe each of the dimensions of actorness, and finding data sources that help us to measure the level of EU actorness. Operationalizing actorness in this way and testing the model for selected policy areas will be the next steps of the project.

If you are interested in learning more about EU actorness in the areas of SDG related policies, climate policies, digital policies, or EU-Africa relations, come back to this blog later! We will address these topics in the case studies and keep you updated on the results and, of course, the lessons we learn from them for the future of the EU in global governance.

Authors: Anna-Lena Guske and Klaus Jacob