THE EU IN INTERNATIONAL NEGOTIATIONS – How to understand the EU through concepts of realism and normative power in trade and development

By Christian von Stamm Jonasson



The aim of this paper is to give a better understanding of the EU and its external actions by creating a framework, which makes it possible to evaluate it in terms of realist and normative behaviour. The argument presented here, suggests that the EU’s external actions are most convincingly explained through the concept of realism, in spite of the fact that many of these actions appear to be normative at first glance. By analysing the EU’s foreign policies on trade and development in an area, where these overlap and can warrant contradictory actions, it is shown that the EU pursues its own interests at the expense of the normative principles, which constitute it.

The next section of the paper is a formulation of a theoretical framework, which qualifies the distinction between realism, where actions are guided by the pursuit of interests and power, and normative power, which is characterized as actions that adhere to the constitutive principles of the EU and are applied according to three procedural normative principles, which founded in three corresponding moral philosophies. The framework, which is arrived at is then applied tentatively on a number of cases. Although every one of the principles is not applied on each case it demonstrates that the theoretical framework can be applied in order to better understand the actions of the EU in terms of realist or normative behaviour.

Finally, the third section summarizes the findings: that the EU does, in fact, act in a way that is best explained by applying the somewhat modified theory of realism. Additionally, suggestions are made as to how this framework may be applied in the future in order to refine it and possibly determine, if the EU is best understood as a realist actor in other areas of foreign policy.

Theoretical framework  

The purpose of this section is to create a demarcation line i.e. an analytical framework, which works to determine, whether realism or normative power is best suited to understand and explain the external actions of the EU, when studying its policies on trade and development and their overlap. This section first outlines the concept of normative power. Secondly, a workable concept of realism is constructed from classic theories of realism and neorealism. Thirdly, some qualifications to the frameworks and their demarcation lines are brought in by discussing papers that do not agree with the sharp division between normative power and realism and by introducing liberalism.

Normative power 

The emergence of the normative power approach can be said to originate in a move away from traditional military power and state-centric focus, which are still retained as the most important aspects of international relations (IR) by realists. The term of normative power is comparable, but not equivalent to the concept of civilian power, although the latter incorporates “the centrality of economic power to achieve national goals, the primacy of diplomatic co-operation to solve international problems; and the willingness to use legally-binding supranational institutions to achieve international progress” (Manners, 2002: pp. 236-237). In this respect, civilian power does seem to work in a comparable way (i.e. through soft power) as normative power, but a key difference is the assumption that civilian power shares with realism: that the nation-state is a fixed entity and the idea of national interests as the primary motivation for external action. However, the collapse of governments in the countries that made up the Soviet block is better understood “collapse of norms rather than the power of force” (Manners, 2002: p. 238) i.e. traditional emphasis of hard power in IR does not provide an adequate tool for explaining the development in the  aftermath of the cold war.

The normative power of Europe, according to Manners, “comes from it historical context, hybrid polity and political-legal constitution” (2002: p. 240). The EU’s international identity is determined by its constitutional norms i.e. the principles of democracy, rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights. In total there are nine constitutive norms: peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and social solidarity, anti-discrimination, sustainable development, and good governance, which are founded in the historical context of the Union, from the immediate post-war period up to the aftermath of the cold war (Manners, 2002: pp. 241-244). From the EU’s pursuit of abolishing the death penalty, which is the example used by Manners, two more observations on normative power can be made, namely, that as a normative power, the EU will pursue foreign policies in spite of the absence of material gains and, relatedly, that the EU can pursue policies, which do not serve national interests and even policies, which go counter to the majority of public opinion in (some) member states. Ontologically, there are two aspects to this: a positivist and a normative i.e. that the EU does act to change international norms in world politics and that it should do so, respectively (Manners, 2002: p. 251-253). However, the present analysis is merely concerned with, which framework is best for explaining external actions of the EU and will not engage in the normative aspect.

Even if we accept that the EU is as a normative power in world politics, “it is another to argue that the EU acts in a normative (i.e. ethically good) way” (Manners, 2008: p. 45). One way to assess this is through the application of moral philosophy to see, how the EU promotes the constitutive/substantive principles, outlined above. These are grounded in three types of moral philosophy and are “by virtue of the principles of ‘living by example’; by duty of its actions in ‘being reasonable’; and by consequence of its impact in ‘doing least harm’” (Manners, 2008: p. 46). These procedural normative principles are founded on the three mainstreams of moral philosophy i.e. Aristotelean virtue ethics, Kantian (deontological) ethics, and Utilitarian (consequentialist) ethics, respectively.

I will briefly touch upon the nine substantive principles and how they are relevant in terms of the present analysis: sustainable peace, is a principle guiding, among others, policies in development aid and trade, and the policies of special relations with the neighbours of the EU; social freedom, which includes the advocacy of trade liberalization through agreements with third countries e.g. economic partnership agreements (EPA’s); consensual democracy, supporting the trinity of democracy, human rights and rule of law, which is to be supported by the EU’s external action e.g. development policies; associative human rights, including the aspect of promoting human rights provisions  through interdependent external actions such as aid and trade policies; supranational rule of law, notably the commitment to multilateralism and promotion of such solutions through external action; inclusive equality; social solidarity, informing trade and developmental policies with the aim to free and fair trade, and fighting poverty; sustainable development, whereby the Union seeks to contribute beyond its borders through development, trade, environmental, and foreign policies in general to foster sustainable environmental, economic and social development in developing countries in order to combat poverty; good governance, having external impact most importantly through commitment to multilateral cooperation  (Manners, 2008: pp. 49-55).

External actions of the EU must then, in order for the Union to be characterized as a normative power, adhere to the nine substantive norms outlined above, while, being pursued in a manner consistent with the three procedural norms i.e. ‘living by example’, ‘being reasonable’ and ‘doing least harm’. In order for the EU to ‘lead by example’ two things are required: consistency, meaning the alignment of deeds and statements i.e. the EU cannot be seen as hypocritical but must live up to the norms, which it seeks to promote, and coherency being the compatibility of policies with universal norms rather than just the ones held by the Unions itself. ‘Being reasonable’ in world politics requires that the EU relates to other parties through engagement and dialogue, where engagement is the practice of initiating and institutionalizing partnership agreements in a transparent manner, and dialogue means engaging in two-way communication in order to rationalize the merits of external action. Finally, the notion of ‘doing least harm’ can be achieved through the use of positive conditionality in foreign policies.


Many of the points above are in stark contrast to notions of realist power in IR. This provides space, where it is possible to create a clear demarcation between the two. From the outset, one disagreement between classical realism and modern neoliberalism must be addressed. The latter emphasize the role on the nation state as the primary actor in IR. However, the present analysis will lean towards a more traditional realism as formulated by Hans Morgenthau. In his view, nation states and the entire international system of states is transitory, while the permanent features of political realism are: interest and power. For analytical purposes: “This idea of the pursuit of power (expressed as the national interest) as the fundamental reality of politics is the link between the conceptual world of international relations and the world of practical politics” (Molloy, 2004: p. 13). For this analysis, this paper will take this notion quite literally and dismiss the state-centric focus of neorealism in order for the EU to be considered an international actor.

Realism emphasizes the strategic pursuit of preferences by international actors. These preferences can be observed empirically or theoretically deduced. Empirical investigation is often a difficult and unreliable strategy given the gaps in the available evidence and the multiple interpretations which they often permit. Realists therefore deduce the preferences of international actors from the constraints of the international system. As this international system is argued to be anarchic, actors depend on self-help strategies to preserve or enhance their power, through the pursuit of interests, in contest with other international actors (Zimmerman: p. 815).

As mentioned earlier, the state-centric nature of realism, which Zimmerman mentions as a difficulty for applying realist theories on studies of the EU, is in fact not an indispensable part of political realism as a theory. Instead we will focus our attention to the two permanent features of political realism, namely interests and power. While the latter concept is unproblematic for the moment, the former does offer some challenges, as the EU’s interests are not always unitary. However, the EU does act in a unitary way. This can be explained by the executive-dominated modus operandi of the EU in international negotiations. The Commission and the Council represent classic executives and cannot easily be influenced by industry lobbyists, national parliaments or even the European Parliament (EP) (Zimmerman, 2007: p. 827). Thus, it is acceptable to assume that the EU wields power and that its way of acting allows it to pursue clearly defined interests. These interests and their formation may themselves be studied e.g. through actor-principal analysis between the member states and the Commission and other EU institutions, but for the present analysis it is sufficient to establish the EU as a unitary actor.

Hyde-Price outlines four assumptions of neorealism and five propositions, which they lead to (2006: pp. 220-221). However, as it is the goal here to talk about the external actions of the EU in a more nuanced manner than merely contemplating the systemic pressures, which influence it, it is necessary to realign the assumptions and propositions, outlined by Hyde-Price. The main obstacle is the insistence of assuming that states are the primary international actors i.e. actors such as the EU are navigating on a global scene, where the setting and rules have been determined by the most powerful states. Here I will maintain that the state should not be considered the sole nexus for action in IR. The most important propositions are that international actors are in contest, attempting to maximize their power, and that ethical concerns informed by political values are second-order concerns, which will only be pursued, when they are not in conflict with the actor’s core interests (Hyde-Price, 2006: pp. 221-223).

Although it has been established that the primary goal in IR is power through the pursuit of interests, it is recognized in neorealism that major powers also pursue normative and ideological agendas. However, they do not pursue these second order agendas at the expense of vital national interests. The extraterritorial nature of problems such as pollution, terrorism etc. creates an incentive to cooperate in order to circumvent issues of ‘free-riding’ and offsetting the balance of power through unitary action. Following this outline of realist theory in IR, the EU serves three primary purposes: 1) promoting member states’ economic interests, 2) collective shaping of the regional milieu, and 3) as as the “institutional repository of the second order normative concerns of EU member states” (Hyde-Price, 2008: p. 31, emphasis in original). However, in the framework under construction here, the EU also has its own interests, which it pursues through external action.

Realists accept the influence of liberal ideas e.g. human rights and effective multilateralism, but are sceptical towards the claim that such ideas determine policy, when they conflict with national or common interests. Speaking in philosophical terms, the idea of universal norms is questioned and the idea of a global common good is also rejected. Instead, realism adheres to a ‘morality of individuality’, which corresponds to a Weberian ‘ethics of responsibility’, specifying that one should consider the consequences of one’s actions for others and behave accordingly. This provides a basis for non-teleological ethics, which is characterized by three principles: prudence, i.e. a modest search not for perfect solutions but rather the lesser of two evils, and a preference for tried and tested solutions; this in turn leads to scepticism about the capacity of humans to achieve ideal outcomes through political action; finally, a realist ethos is grounded in reciprocity, emphasizing compromise, mutual accommodation and give-and-take relationships (Hyde-Price, 2008: p. 42-43).

Blurring the lines between realist and normative power

For the distinction between realist and normative power to be credible, it is necessary to consider some of the literature, which “challenges the usefulness of the distinction between normative and strategic motivations as being helpful for understanding the liberalism or otherwise of (EU) foreign policy” (Rosamond, 2013: p. 134). For the purpose of the present analysis, a few key features of this argument are warranted to be taken into consideration. Firstly, I agree that the constitutive norms of the EU are inherently liberal, and as such the idea of market liberalism (not to be confused with neoliberalism) can be considered a tenth constitutive norm. Additionally, in order to produce analytically interesting results, an analysis of the EU as a normative power founded on liberal ideas must take into account the different modes of liberalism, which are outlined by Rosamond (2013: p. 140). This can help to qualify actions taken by the EU as a normative liberal power, not only saying if they are so or not, but also according to the mode of liberalism invoked i.e. ‘market liberalism’, ‘liberalism as the pursuit of peace’ and ‘liberalism as cosmopolitan duty’. This is significant because the modes of liberalism work through different policies are intended for different subjects and have different consequences. I will argue that in order for behaviour to be truly normative, the mode of liberalism employed must match the espoused objectives of external action.

Above, the line between realist/strategic action and normative/liberal action was blurred. In a critical reorientation of the concept of normative power, Langan achieves to all but erase them. Briefly stated, it is argued that normative power has the ability to “construct a publicly acceptable face for regressive policy pursuits to the outside world” (2012: p. 245), while also rationalizing and condoning the pursuits of interests internally i.e. the actual normative power of Europe is to publicly legitimize and self-rationalize external policies, which have negative material consequences for the citizens in the affected countries. The binary opposition between norms versus self-interest is seen to be unproductive as norms and interests can be woven together e.g. in trade relations market liberalization can be seen as both a consequence of the normative commitment to economic liberalization as well as promoting European commercial interests (Langan, 2012). Presently, the distinction between realist and normative power will be maintained, but the arguments set forth by Langan serves as a reminder that the norms and self-interests have a complex relationship and cautions that the analysis must be aware of instances, where norms may be hard to separate from interests.


The EU can be best understood as a normative power, when it subordinates national interests to value-driven policies. Additionally, the EU is seen as a normative power, when its external actions are rooted in the Union’s substantive constitutive principles and when these are applied in a fashion consistent with the procedural normative principles of ‘leading by example’, ‘being reasonable’ and ‘doing least harm’. Additionally, the normative traits of the EU can be qualified as normative liberal in one of three senses i.e. ‘market liberalism’, ‘liberalism as the pursuit of peace’ and ‘liberalism as cosmopolitan duty’, and only when the mode of liberalism is in accordance with its objectives.

Conversely, external action is considered to be an expression of realist power, when it is directed at maximizing power through the pursuit of self-interest. Also, in the case of second-order normative concerns, actions are considered to be explainable by using the concept of realism, when its actions are ethically characterized by prudence, scepticism and reciprocity. Finally, the use of norms to legitimize and self-rationalize regressive policy outcomes is not seen as normative in the sense of the term used here, but rather that this is best explained in realism.

the eu in international negotiations concerning trade and development

Having established a workable analytical framework, the below analysis will focus how the EU’s actions can be classified. The cases have been selected to focus on the generalized system of preferences (GSP) and the EU-ACP relations. This criteria has been established in order for the analysis to focus on the interplay between development concerns and trade issues, as this believed to an area, where value-drive and interest-driven behaviour might clash. In testing the framework on a relatively narrow group of case studies, denies any claim to universal applicability. Furthermore, there is a risk of selection bias, as the cases are part of the same body of literature. Hence, it will be commendable to reassess and refine the framework by applying it to other cases and different policy areas. The cases share many features and therefore, many of the analytical arguments are the same. In order for the analysis to refrain from being too repetitive, the cases are analyzed in a way, which focuses on one or two of the analytical concepts from the previous section, which are most relevant to the case, and ensures that all the concepts are applied on at least one case.


Reframing the Generalized System of Preferences 

The GSP has been reframed in a way, which leaves a number of developing and emerging economies ineligible to use it. This coincided with negotiations on a number of bilateral free trade agreements (FTA’s) and had the effect of inducing precisely the countries with which the EU was negotiating FTA’s, who were no longer eligible for the GSP, to conclude these agreements – a correlation that was merely coincidental and unintended, according to DG Trade (Siles-Bügge, 2014). Applying the framework worked out above, several things become readily apparent. Although market liberalization can be seen as normative action, as it adheres to several of the constitutive norms of the EU. Also, the non-reciprocal nature of the GSP could criticized for being incompatible with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which would also justify it as value-driven, since commitment to multilateralism is perceived as normative behaviour. However, the reframing and implementation of the GSP does not appear to be informed by engagement and dialogue with the affected countries i.e. the EU does not appear to ‘be reasonable’.

Moreover, market liberalisation is inherently difficult for the EU because it is not ‘leading by example’ as it unflinchingly protects the domestic agricultural sectors of the member states through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Regarding the respect for the multilateral approach, which is implicit in the reference to WTO, this can be seen by a cynic as a rhetorical cover, where the EU utilizes its norms in order to pursue interests. The negotiating of FTA’s, which are in their own right a move away from multilateralism by the EU, and casts doubt upon the motivation for reconciling the GSP scheme with WTO rules. Furthermore, and most damaging for proponents of the normative power of the EU, is that the evidence presented by Siles-Brügge (2014) strongly suggests that developmental policy has been subordinated to strategic actions to enhance competitiveness through trade policy means. This is understood as realist behaviour because the normative values have become second-order to strategic interests. Finally, the emphasis on reciprocity has been previously defined as pertaining to a realist ethos and here the legal or moral necessity of instituting reciprocity to comply with WTO rules is not convincing, which leads to the conclusion that the reframing of the GSP is best understood through the concept of realism.

The EU-ACP relations: From Lomé to Cotonou 

The development cooperation program, which was introduced as a non-political agreement of promoting economic, cultural and social development in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations, and were institutionalized in the Lomé (I-V) conventions, was seen by the former colonies as a manifestation as a ‘right to development’ and being free of conditionality in the same sense as their ‘right to independence’. However, the 1970’s saw a reassertion of liberal principles and the demand for ‘market friendly reforms’ in the developing countries, which was followed by a political conditionality, where the recipients of aid were mandated to meet demands for good governance, human rights and democratisation. During the Uruguay Round of GATT, trade liberalisation became the overarching goal of trade policy and the liberal and multilateral principles became more important. In the end, the Lomé conventions came to entail strong and explicit political conditions for aid including reforms on market access and good governance. These conventions have been replaced by the Cotonou Agreement, in part, due to the EU’s insistence of a clear political dimension to a development cooperation, a desire to create a framework, which is WTO compatible and a belief of the Commission that internal economic reform in the ACP countries are a more effective vehicle for development than simple trade preferences (Brown, 2007).

On the surface, this would seem to be a textbook example of normative behaviour from the EU. As it has been outlined, political conditionality can be seen as a manifestation of Utilitarian ethics in the procedural norms, while a commitment to market liberalism and multilateralism is consistent with the EU’s constitutive norms, which is also the case for promoting human rights, good governance etc. through external action. However, the nuancing of normative power based on the three modes of liberalism gives the development a slightly different look. Even though these modes are not sharply divided in reality, their division for analytical purposes shows that there is a high degree of market liberalism in the development of the Lomé conventions. However, given that the primary goal of the conventions were developmental, market liberalism is less suited to guide policy than liberalism as cosmopolitan duty. I argue that this is a clear sign that development concerns have been subordinated to trade issues. If this is true, then the EU has exercised realist power. In this sense, the normative beliefs of the EU have become a justification for regressive policy outcomes and the normative principles are second order to pursuit of strategic interests. One way or the other, the development of the Lomé conventions can hardly be said to exhibit the EU as a normative power, especially since the inclusion of the ACP countries in the revisions to Lomé has lacked engagement and dialogue.

The Cotonou Agreement  

“[T]he EU has a distinct tendency to achieve foreign policy objectives through its regional and bilateral trade arrangements.” (Hurt, 2003: p. 175).

In spite of claims to the contrary, the EU-ACP relationship, manifested in the Lomé Conventions, has always been political and this trait remains in their successor the Cotonou Agreement. This new agreement emphasized the notion of partnership between the EU and the ACP, while affirming the issue of poverty reduction as a primary objective. As the concerns with Lomé illustrated, the new agreement must be WTO compatible. Meanwhile, the ACP will be divided into less developed countries (LDC’s) and developing countries using the WTO classification, where the former will continue to enjoy non-reciprocal trade preferences, the latter can either sign economic partnership agreements (EPA’s), which are at their core FTA’s, with the EU or become members of the far less advantageous GSP. The EPA’s may be more advantageous for the ACP, but their implementation require institutional capacity, which the regional groups within the ACP do not possess (Hurt, 2003).

Again the changes could instinctively be seen as value-driven, especially the centrality of creating more equal partnerships, reducing poverty in the ACP, fostering ownership by each ACP state of its own development and highlighting political dialogue. However, the coercive nature of the agreement i.e. the EPA’s as the only viable option for developing ACP countries illustrates that the EU actions are informed by a realist ethos of scepticism rather than by the idea of ‘being reasonable’ and ‘doing least harm’. Also the fact that linking aid provisions to human rights was refuted by the ACP countries, but included as early as during negotiations for Lomé II and III, and now is an integral part of the Cotonou Agreement, illustrates the lack of engagement and dialogue, which was also evident in the previous case. Again it is difficult to justify the EU as a normative power in the case of EU-ACP relations.

EPA’s – moving away from multilateralism first   

Studying the emergence of EPA does provide two more insights regarding the EU’s behaviour in international negotiations. Firstly, the EPA’s and FTA’s in general represent a significant move from a policy of multilateralism first by the EU and towards a bilateral approach. Secondly, the sections on services and investments are very similar to the Unions commercial FTA’s, which suggests that commercial interests are key drivers for the articulation of “developmental FTA’s” i.e. EPA’s (Heron & Siles-Brügge, 2011). The move away from the WTO and multilateralism in negotiation of trade policy is curious, because the EU simultaneously uses the WTO rules as a reason for the necessity for introducing reciprocity in EPA’s, while undermining the multilateral approach in its trade policy. In the terms of normative ethics this is a failure to ‘lead by example’ as it does not exhibit consistency or coherency in the policies of the EU. Also, the move away from negotiating within the WTO framework can be interpreted as ‘forum switching’, meaning “the deliberate changing from one negotiation arena to another in order to be able to promote one’s trade interests more successfully” (Blaas & Becker, 2007: p. 271). In this interpretation, the act of forum switching is obviously opportunistic and best explained as realist behaviour.

The dominance of commercial interests as drivers of foreign policy in the case of EPA’s can be interpreted in two ways. One the one hand, they may be simply a manifestation of a vital strategic interest for Europe as economic interests are central for the power position the Union holds, which would naturally manifest itself in the service sector, as the EU has a very large service sector, and in the investment sector, because European firms have a need for investing in low-cost countries in order to utilize global value chains, and these investments are also warranted in order for European firms to gain access to the emerging markets of the ACP. However, if the formulation of the service and investment sections of the EPA’s are, indeed, a sign that EU trade policy is susceptible to be influenced by special interest groups from within the Union, this could weaken the claim that the EU’s action are executive-dominated, which in turn would cast a shadow of doubt upon the EU’s capability for unitary action. This capability is central to the application of realist theory on the EU because it overcomes the state-centric nature of the theory. However, due to the arguments about the importance of services and investments to the EU’s economy, it is reasonable to assume that these sectors represent core strategic interests for the Union as a unitary actor. Also, states which are perceived as unitary actors in neorealism are themselves influenced by domestic interest groups and as such, the status of the EU as a unitary actor stands.

Impact of the EPA’s 

Several empirical impact assessment studies as well as theoretically founded pieces have considered the long term effects on EPA’s for the ACP countries.  This final part of the analysis looks at these and how they measure up to the intentions espoused by the EU. Empirical assessments of the impact of opening markets in the ACP to products from the EU can become a costly affair (Karingi et. al., 2005; Stevens & Kennan, 2005) especially if these are not accompanied by complementary reforms before liberalisation takes place (Bussee and Grossmann, 2007). Additionally, it is argued that regional organisations in developing countries e.g. the developing countries in the ACP do not deliver on the promises of integration into the world economy with increasing inflow of investments from Europe and/or increasing trade surpluses, but merely has the effect of providing market access for European firms to sell their products and services (Robles, 2007). This can negatively affect the home emerging industries of these countries as competition is enhanced and so the rhetoric surrounding the actions of the EU are best understood in realist terms, because it appears to be a legitimization and self-rationalization of regressive policy outcomes. The only way that a normative explanation of these actions has any bearing is through the understanding of normative power as the ability to legitimize and self-rationalize regressive policy outcomes for the citizens in the affected countries.



The analysis above has shown that in matters of trade and development, the EU’s external actions are best understood in terms of realism. The framework, which has been arrived at and tentatively applied to a number of cases, appears to be able to explain the external actions of the Union in terms of normative power and realism. It has been shown that the EU does not adhere to its constitutive principles in a manner consistent with the three procedural norms. Also, the Union’s actions are not consistent vis-a-vis the ideal type of liberalism it employs and its stated objective. Additionally, the EU pursues interests in a manner, which is inconsistent with regarding it as a interest-driven actor and the only way in which it makes sense to talk about the normative power of Europe is when it uses norms and values to legitimize and self-rationalize regressive policy outcomes. This use of rhetoric is argued to be more in line with a realist mode of action.

In order to further classify the EU as a realist actor in international negotiations, the theoretical framework should be applied to more diverse cases and on different policy areas. Additionally, this tentative application should be refined by applying it more thoroughly to cases with more detail and, thus, more avenues for discussing the normative or realist behaviour of the EU.



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