Case studies, lesson topics and activities

1. The EU, state sovereignty and the Global Politics study design:

The European Union (EU), as a regional organisation, is a key actor in contemporary global politics. It is comprised of individual nation-states, which ‘pool’ their sovereignty in a number of traditional state areas such as economic, trade and foreign policy. Therefore, the EU represents a possible alternative way of organising political associations beyond the state. However, this also means that regional integration poses a challenge to the power and influence of states.

The issue of regional integration as a challenge to state sovereignty is covered by Unit 3, Area of Study 1 of the Global Politics course. This handout is designed to assist teachers in teaching this aspect of the course using the contemporary EU as a case study.


2. The EU in relation to Unit 3, Area of Study 1 key knowledge and skills:

Unit 3: Global Actors, Area of Study 1 introduces students to the key actors within contemporary global politics. Outcome 1 requires that:

On completion of this unit the student should be able to evaluate the power and influence of key global actors in the twenty-first century and assess the extent to which they achieve their aims.

To achieve this outcome the student will draw on key knowledge and key skills outlined in Area of Study 1.

The EU is a valuable case study both from an internal and an external perspective.

  • Internal perspective: studying the EU allows students to explore how the member states interact with each other, and with institutions above the nation-state level (‘supranational institutions’), within the setting of a regional organisation. This interaction takes place on a multitude of issues, ranging from economic and trade policy (e.g. deciding on a common position at the WTO), to environmental policy (e.g. how to respond to transnational issues such as climate change), to matters of security and foreign affairs (e.g. the Iraq and Libya conflicts).
  • External perspective: a study of the EU demonstrates how it acts as a global power in its own right, and how it interacts with other global powers, such as the United States. The 2003 Iraq war is a specific example of how the EU and US perceive their respective roles in world affairs, and the differences between them. The contrast between the EU’s ‘soft power’ approach (i.e. diplomacy, promotion of political and cultural values) and the US’s ‘hard power’ approach (i.e. coercion, often via military force) also illustrates some of the different ways of exercising influence in international politics.

Therefore, a case study of the EU can help students to attain the following key knowledge points:

  • The key terms: nation, state, sovereignty, power, global governance, multilateralism, public opinion and globalisation
  • The aims and objectives, roles, power and influence of the key actors in contemporary global politics: states, international institutions of global governance, non-state actors, and TNCs
  • The challenges facing state sovereignty:
    • Regional groupings
    • Contested and changing borders
    • Issues and crises that require multilateral resolution

The EU is also relevant to the Unit 3, Area of Study 1 key skills:

  • Define and explain key global politics terms and use them in the appropriate context
  • Analyse the role of key global actors in pursuit of their aims and objectives
  • Evaluate the power, authority and influence of key global actors
  • Assess the extent to which global actors achieve their aims
  • Research and synthesise contemporary evidence to draw conclusions.


3. Background information on the European Union:

The European Union (EU) was founded in 1957 by six states: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It was originally named the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK, Ireland and Denmark joined the EU in 1973. Greece joined in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986. Following the end of the Cold War, three previously neutral countries – Austria, Finland and Sweden – joined the EU in 1995. In 2004 a group of ten, mostly former communist countries became EU member states. These were: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Finally, Romania and Bulgaria were the most recent countries to join the EU, in 2007.

Despite the potential loss of state sovereignty, gaining EU membership remains a high priority for a number of European states that have not yet joined. Candidate and potential candidate states for EU membership include Turkey and several former Yugoslav states. Croatia is very likely to be the next country to join the EU, possibly in 2013, though a date has not yet been set.

The EU was originally conceived as an economic project and its core competences remain in economic areas such as trade, competition policy, and regulation of products and businesses. The EU’s common market is based on the ‘four freedoms’ – the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. However, the EU has at least some policy-making powers in a wide range of other areas including justice, the environment, health, education and foreign affairs. The creation of the Eurozone adds another, deeper layer of monetary integration for the 17 member states that use the common currency.

The EU is a complex organisation. It contains some institutions that resemble national counterparts and some that are unique in global politics. The key legislative body is the Council of Ministers, consisting of government ministers from each of the member states. The EU also has a Parliament, directly elected by European citizens, which has co-legislative powers in many areas, but does not form government and is not as powerful as most democratic national parliaments. The European Commission is an unelected body that serves as the EU’s bureaucracy and executive branch. EU laws are interpreted and enforced by the European Court of Justice, which performs a very similar role to the High Court of Australia or the US Supreme Court. Finally, for Eurozone members, the European Central Bank is a key institution, as it sets interest rates for those that use the common currency.


4. Potential lesson topics and learning activities:

A. Introduction to the EU as a case study of regional integration

Having introduced students to the core concepts of global politics – such as ‘state’, ‘nation’, ‘power’ and ‘sovereignty’ – in the first few weeks of the course, a case study of the EU may be used to illustrate how these concepts work in practice as well as how they are changing in the 21st century.

The EU is not a state, but has numerous state and nation-like characteristics. It has a flag and an anthem, a currency (used by 17 out of 27 member states), citizenship (though this is derivative of national citizenship), institutions of governance (though no government, as such), a legal and judicial system (though no army or police force). The EU is often described as a sui generis, or unique entity in world politics – it is less than a state but more than an international organisation.

As a regional organisation, the EU offers a new model for structuring inter-state relations and exercising power in international affairs. It also offers a new understanding of sovereignty – rather than this being an indivisible quality that belongs only to individual nation-states, the member states of the EU share their sovereignty in a range of areas.

Sharing, or pooling, sovereignty has both advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include being better able to address transnational issues, such as pollution, crime and regulation of transnational corporations (TNCs). There are also economic and trade advantages for the countries involved, such as having tariff- and restriction-free access to a large common market (much in the same way that trade and business among the states and territories of Australia is free and unrestricted). Being part of a large bloc also gives EU member states much more economic clout and influence in organisations such as the WTO than they would have on their own. Many people argue that the forces of globalisation have eroded state sovereignty anyway, and that states’ only hope of adequately protecting their interests is to band together in regional groupings.

However, there are also disadvantages. Member states agree to be bound by laws and decisions passed by the EU institutions. Because laws are passed by qualified majority in many areas, individual member states may have to implement laws that they do not support. National governments are also restricted in the policies they can adopt as they cannot pass laws that conflict with EU laws and policies. E.g. governments cannot adopt protectionist measures to promote domestic companies/industries, as this would violate the laws of the EU’s free internal market. Membership of the Eurozone comes with an extra set of restrictions, as countries using the euro cannot set their own interest rates or intervene to change the value of their currency.

Associated learning activities

A useful exercise may be for students to list what they consider to be the key features of a sovereign nation-state (e.g. clearly defined borders, army, flag, currency, prime minister/president, foreign policy, etc.). Students should then evaluate the extent to which the EU has these characteristics. This will sharpen students’ knowledge and understanding of two categories of global actor – states and regional organisations.


B. Member states within the EU and the changing nature of sovereignty

The above presented a macro view of European integration, but the EU can also be studied from the perspective of individual member states. The vast majority of legislation passed in the national parliaments of EU member states derives from supranational (i.e. at the level of the EU institutions) directives and regulations. Therefore, being a member of the EU has a huge effect on a state politically, economically, socially and legally.

Joining the EU is quite onerous. Potential members have to meet a number of stringent conditions relating to the robustness of their economies, democratic political systems and human rights protections. They also have to incorporate into their domestic legal systems the entire body of EU law, which runs to tens of thousands of pages. Yet, membership remains highly sought after – in the 21st century the EU has grown from 15 to 27 member states, and many others want to join. Also despite wariness of the EU in some existing member states (known as ‘Euro-scepticism’), no government of a member state has ever seriously contemplated leaving.

Many argue that joining the EU increases a state’s global influence and prestige. This is true both of small and big states. For example, Great Britain was once an undisputed world power at the head of a global empire. However, its power declined rapidly after WWII, contributing eventually to the decision to join the EU in 1973. While still a significant state in its own right, Great Britain on its own is in no position to compete with powers such as the US and China. Its global political profile, as well as its economic clout, is increased by its EU membership.

The benefits are even more obvious for small states, which, for example, enjoy the protection and strong bargaining position of the EU in international trade negotiations. EU membership also gives these states ‘a seat at the table’, i.e. a vote alongside major European powers such as France, Germany and Britain, on important economic and political issues. Of course, as already noted, all member states must accept limits on their sovereignty.

Associated learning activities

Students may assess the pros and cons of a nation-state joining the EU. How does the balance of pros and cons change depending on whether the state in question is big or small, wealthy or poor, etc?

Students may also investigate the impact of EU membership on a specific state, e.g. Great Britain, Italy or Poland.


C. The Eurozone crisis

[NB. Material on the Eurozone crisis can also be taught in Unit 4, Area of Study 2: Crises and Responses (economic instability).]

The framework for a common European currency was established in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty. The euro was introduced as an electronic currency in 1999 and the coins and notes entered circulation in 2002. Technically, all EU member states, including those that joined the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, are obliged to work towards the adoption of the euro as their currency. However, many of the newer EU member states have not yet met the membership criteria. A few of the older member states – the UK, Sweden and Denmark – have not adopted the euro either, and are not likely to do so in the foreseeable future, due to reservations about giving up their national currencies. As of the beginning of 2011, 17 out of 27 EU member states share the common currency.

There were a number of economic motives behind the creation of the euro, such as decreasing transaction costs for companies that operate in multiple EU states and facilitating tourism and other forms of transnational commerce. It was also envisaged that creating a large, strong currency would prevent market speculators from targeting individual national currencies. There were also important political considerations behind the creation of the common currency. Currencies are important symbols of national identity, and the euro was intended to symbolise European unity and identity. It was also thought that sharing a currency would encourage closer cooperation among states in other areas of economic and fiscal policy.

In addition to the purported benefits, there are also a number of potential problems with multiple countries sharing a currency. Sharing a currency means sharing a monetary policy, but countries with vastly different economic and political conditions are unlikely to have the same monetary policy needs. E.g. country X may be going through an economic downturn, with low growth and rising unemployment, while country Y’s economy is overheating due to a construction and property boom. Under such circumstances, country X would be best served by lowering interest rates to stimulate economic activity and devaluing the currency to make their exports more competitive. On the other hand, country Y needs higher interest rates to discourage borrowing and take the edge off the boom. However, in the Eurozone there is only one interest rate, set by the European Central Bank, which must attempt to address the needs of 17 very different countries.

Of course, such problems can arise even within countries – e.g. in Australia, WA may be experiencing a boom, while Victoria’s growth is sluggish, but the Reserve Bank can only set one interest rate for the whole country. However, the situation is different because Australia is one state with one federal government, a federal taxation system, and a sense of common identity. This means that the government can redress economic imbalances between states by using tax collected in one state to stimulate growth in another state. Redistributing money in this way is not very noticeable to Australian citizens and, besides, we are not likely to resent helping out our fellow Australians.

On the other hand, despite sharing a monetary union, the Eurozone states each have their own fiscal (i.e. taxation and spending) policies. It is not easy or straightforward to redistribute large amounts of money from one part of the Eurozone to another and it is very much noticeable. The current crisis has also brought out old national stereotypes, with ‘thrifty’ and ‘hardworking’ Germans and northern Europeans coming to resent bailing out ‘lazy’ Greeks and other southern Europeans.

The current debt crisis of the Eurozone is also a major example of how regional integration may challenge traditional state sovereignty. It has reinforced the interdependence of Eurozone economies, as the crisis of market confidence hits one heavily indebted state after another. The governments of both debtor states (such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland) and creditor states (such as Germany, France, Finland and Slovakia) are forced by this interdependence to take decisions – accepting harsh austerity measures on the one hand, contributing to huge bailout funds on the other – that are unpopular with citizens and not necessarily in their own country’s best interests. The crisis is also having an adverse effect on national democracies. Both the Italian and Greek governments collapsed over it, and the recently deposed Greek Prime Minister, Papandreou, changed his mind about holding a referendum on Greece’s austerity measures after being heavily criticised by his European partners, particularly German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy.

Opinion is divided on the best solution and likely outcome of the Eurozone debt crisis. Many EU political figures are pushing for a closer fiscal and economic union, where tax and spending policies are coordinated, financial risk is shared and money is more easily redistributed among member states. This would make the EU – or at least the Eurozone – more like a federal state. Others argue that such policies are unrealistic and undesirable and that the Eurozone may disintegrate partially (i.e. with some weaker members, such as Greece, reverting to their old national currencies) or even completely.

Associated learning activities

Students may investigate the causes of the Eurozone debt crisis with a view to answering the question, ‘to what extent is the common euro currency responsible for Europe’s economic crisis?’

Taking advantage of the extensive media coverage the Eurozone crisis has and continues to receive, students may compile a media file containing articles that explain and advocate different responses. Which response is preferable? How would the proposed responses affect state sovereignty?


D. Exercising global influence: ‘Soft power’ Europe and its limits

A case study of the EU may also be used to demonstrate the different ways in which power can be exercised on the world stage. The EU is often said to use ‘soft power’ to achieve its geopolitical objectives. Soft power (which is defined in the Global Politics study design) involves using civilian instruments such as multilateral negotiations and cultural and values-based diplomacy to influence other actors. It is usually contrasted with ‘hard power’, which involves coercion, usually via military force. As the EU lacks military power, it must rely on non-traditional, soft power to influence other global actors and pursue broad aims such as the preservation of peace, promotion of environmental protection measures, and favourable trading conditions with other parts of the world.

European Union soft power has had mixed results. The EU is in a particularly strong position to influence those countries that wish to join. This was a factor, for example, in Serbia’s arrest and extradition to The Hague for prosecution of war criminal Ratko Mladic in May 2011. Mladic had been wanted since 1996 and there is little doubt that the increased effort to find him was due to the Serbian government’s desire to be considered for EU membership. On the other hand, the EU has been less successful in promoting global action on climate change. Despite much hype, the EU failed to secure any significant new commitments at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference in the face of intransigence by major polluters, including the US and China.

The 2011 conflict in Libya also demonstrated the limits of ‘soft power Europe’. When faced with the humanitarian crisis of a government committing large-scale crimes against its own people, diplomacy and other soft power tools are of little use. As violent inter- and intra-state conflict continues to exist in international relations, there will always be a need for hard, military power. The EU remains largely impotent in this area. It was unable to effectively intervene in the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and it was similarly unable to intervene in Libya in 2011. In both cases, action was taken by individual European states, via NATO, with US support. For this reason, some people argue that the EU is still ultimately reliant on the ‘hard power’ US to guarantee international stability.

The 2003 Iraq war and the Libya conflict are also good examples of the potential tension between state sovereignty and the imperatives of regional integration. In both cases the EU was unable to formulate a coherent policy position. In the case of the Iraq war, Britain, Spain and Poland, among others, supported the US-led invasion, while France and Germany were amongst the strongest opponents of the war. The Libya intervention was led by Britain and France, while Germany did not support military action. Since 2009 the EU has had a quasi-foreign minister, Lady Catherine Ashton, whose official title is High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. However, she cannot determine the EU’s foreign policy and can only speak on behalf of the EU if all 27 member states agree on a common position. Therefore, the EU remains highly constrained in areas of high politics, leading some people to describe it as an economic giant, but a political dwarf.

Associated learning activities

Students may define ‘soft power’ and give specific examples of where it has been used effectively and where it has not been effective. Students should do the same for ‘hard power’.

Students may write an essay reflecting on whether the concept of ‘soft power Europe’ is really just an attempt to disguise the EU’s weakness as a global political actor.