EU in Crimea - The Graveyard of Europe's Normative Power?

Tornike Metreveli

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Although Putin’s Crimean annexation speech sounded quite medieval, if not barbarian, to most in Europe and North America, we tend to find that Tsar Vladimir of Russia is bringing us back to that Hobbesian “war of all against all” principle that the rosy multiculturalist Kantian Paradise of the EU is too inefficient to handle. But should the EU handle this issue at all? In so far as the Ukrainian people stood for months and paid with their blood to become dignified members of the European family – yes, it must! An intellectually perplexing question, however, remains: How can Europe handle Putin’s increasingly dangerous geopolitical gambles, which will unquestionably have longer implications for Europe too, when their over-reliance on Russia’s natural resources puts them in a condition of double-standards? Does the EU have the normative, economic and political capital to translate punitive discourse into an efficient policy against Russia? If yes, then how? These are just a few questions that one should want to hear critical reflections on.

Not surprisingly, an awful lot is being written and said on the subject of Ukraine these days. The discourse has been demonstrably diverse. One can hear both creepy apologies and shivering rebukes to the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine. Various parallels have been made to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 (as a matter of fact, the latter also happened during the Olympics; it is interesting what we should expect for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games: Transnistria? Karabakh? South Ossetia wanting to join North Ossetia? Abkhazia becoming part of Russia? Only the Tsar knows!). I am not going to bring anything new to the table from a comparative perspective, given that this topic does not lack a wide variety of opinions and speculations. I am only attempting to briefly reflect on the institutional and normative set-up of the EU in order to suggest both that one should not expect assertive actions from it and that trivial discourse about the efficiency of European diplomacy, the lack of political tools to punish Russia for annexing a sovereign state, etc., can only damage the longer term strategic implications for the EU to reduce their energy dependency and search for alternative routes.

We hear various metaphors about the EU in international relations. Some call it a “Kantian paradise” (Kagan 2004), others a “vanishing mediator” (Balibar in Manners 2006: 174), or the slightly wittier “an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm” (Eyskens 1991). Leaving aside the epithets, one can see the EU as an actor that has spread its norms beyond its own borders by using soft power. The key figure in constructing the theoretical basis of the EU’s normative power-identity, Ian Manners, talks about the five “core” and four “minor” norms of the EU. He suggests that “peace, liberty, democracy, human rights, and rule of law” are the core norms in the EU’s “normative arsenal”; whereas “social solidarity, anti-discrimination, sustainable development and good governance” are the “minor” norms (Manners 2002: 242-3).

In terms of the argument for the usage of soft power, EU pundits recall how Cyprus, Poland, Malta, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (all previous candidate countries for the EU) each ratified the abolition of the death penalty, which was a condition for EU membership; the adoption of Kyoto Protocol responsibilities, particularly the adherence to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and investment in climate-friendly projects; the defence of civil rights; support for the EU’s peace-making efforts in the Middle East, etc.

Indeed, one can be forgiven for not expecting to see the armies of the EU marching in Crimea singing “Joy, beautiful sparkle of the gods, daughter of Elysium!” of the Anthem of Europe, but one would at least expect a more action-based policy from the EU in the longer run.

The EU’s political identity was decisively shaped in response to its own past (or its experiences of the past) and reflections on Europe’s historical failures: genocide, violent nationalism, colonialism, two world wars, etc. Thus, the rejection of war, colonialism and nationalism constitute its normative basis (Manners, 2006). The EU’s unusual political construction (a “supranational form of governance”) and its legal framework (a strong commitment to international norms and multilateralism) represent the EU’s “normative difference” from other global powers. Therefore, a mixture of historical memory, “hybrid polity” and the evolution of legal frameworks have mostly stipulated modern European adherence to the idea of peace and liberty and, at the same time, the EU’s commitment to international conventions and declarations (Manners 2002: 240-41). These, as I have argued elsewhere, are precisely the EU’s strongest and weakest points (Metreveli 2011).

That the EU portrays itself as “one of the most important, if not the most important, normative powers in the world” (Barroso in Peterson 2007) leaves the reader exhaustively searching to understand the normative dichotomy in Crimea. On the one hand, the EU’s power is deemed to lie in its system of values. This forms its relations with the outer world, particularly in terms of multilateral decision making and inclusive cooperation. However, on the other hand, the broad normative concepts, such as the promotion of peace, liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, which constitute the normative foundation of the EU, are themselves sources of wider interpretation. Thus, in practice, the translation of those broad concepts into political action gives rise to incoherent policy that appears incompatible with the EU’s normative aims, undermining the image of the EU as a “normative” power in the eyes of third parties, not to mention from the perspective of the Ukrainian people who fought for the European choice at the expense of their lives and sovereignty.

Indeed, one can be forgiven for not expecting to see the armies of the EU marching in Crimea singing “Joy, beautiful sparkle of the gods, daughter of Elysium!” of the Anthem of Europe, but one would at least expect a more action-based policy from the EU in the longer run. An expansion of the EU’s eastern borders by integrating Ukraine and Georgia constitutes the most credible tool for the deterrence of Russia’s hegemony in the future. For the best interests of EU member states, building stronger energy security ties with the Central Asian and Caucasian gas kingdoms (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan) via Georgian-Ukrainian transit channels, thus avoiding Russia, would make the European voice distinctly heard on the global political arena. This seems to be a longer strategic goal that EU diplomats will have to face in order to reduce their over-reliance on Russia’s natural resources. Only then will they be able to avoid the constant ethical conflict between the principles upon which the EU was founded and, on the other hand, its double standard policies.

In this article, author Tornike Metreveli references well-documented historical events, many of which are recounted in the following reference sources:

  • Eyskens, M., (1991) War in the Gulf: Europe; Gulf fighting shatters Europeans' fragile unity. The New York Times 25 January. [Accessed: 19th of March, 2014].
  • Kagan, R (2004) Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Manners, I., (2002) Normative power Europe: a contradiction in terms? Journal of Common Market Studies 40 (2), 235-58.
  • Manners, I., (2006) The European Union as a normative power: a response to Thomas Diez, Millennium, vol. 35 (1), pp. 167–80.
  • Metreveli, T. (2011) The EU's Normative Power - Strength or Weakness?, Atlantic-Community, (April), 1-16.
  • Peterson, J. (2007) John Peterson interviews the European Commission President. 17 July 2007. [Accessed: 19th of March, 2014]


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