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Dead on arrival: normative EU policy towards China


The European Union’s (EU) normative roles in global politics have in recent years been a hotly debated topic. The EU promotes its political values outside of the Union, especially with regard to prospective accession countries and small developing countries. However, a normative foreign policy approach encounters considerable challenges when confronted with major powers, such as China and Russia that do not share the political values promoted by the EU. Attempts at pursuing a normative policy towards these countries often come across as halfhearted. This article discusses EU normative policy towards China. It identifies loss of the moral high ground, conflicting positions of EU members and lack of leverage as the three main factors hampering it. It needs to be recognised that these problems are fundamental and stem from the very nature of the EU itself. The article argues that instead of a halfhearted offensive normative approach towards China or ubiquitous dialogues with partners, the EU may be better off with a more determined policy of defensive normativity. This would entail being more insistent in upholding European values within our own community rather than seeking to export them outside of the Union, and favouring demand-driven cooperation. The choice stands between altering the self-image of the EU to make it better correspond to reality, or making reality live up to the self-image.

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  1. Acquis communautaire refers to the total body of accumulated EU law, acquis politique to the accumulated EU political practice.

  2. The author used the Eur-Lex database on January 30, 2009 to search for common positions and joint actions where the target country was mentioned in the title.

  3. (Bailes 2008: 129–130) has argued that the EU’s evolving into a “real” collective defence community would make it more thoroughly militarised than anything imaginable today and would make it run the risk of acquiring more overt enemies.

  4. Excerpt from Neil Young’s song Rockin’ in the free world.

  5. After 9/11, Robert Kagan famously described Americans as being from Mars and Europeans from Venus when it comes to their views on international politics (Kagan 2002).

  6. Former Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson acknowledged that the EU cannot prescribe solutions to China on its domestic issues. China Daily 16 April 2008, EU cannot “dictate” solutions to China’s problems.


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The author would like to thank Ella och Georg Ehrnrooths stiftelse and the Finnish Foreign Ministry for providing funding to support the research for this article. The author would also like to thank Timo Behr, Tuomas Forsberg, Bart Gaens, Jonathan Holslag, Jyrki Kallio, Hanna Ojanen, Hannu Ripatti, Teija Tiilikainen, Mikko Tyrväinen and Antto Vihma for helpful comments. An earlier version appeared as a FIIA Working Paper in September 2010.

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Correspondence to Mikael Mattlin.

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Mattlin, M. Dead on arrival: normative EU policy towards China. Asia Eur J 10, 181–198 (2012).

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  • European Union
  • Member State
  • Foreign Policy
  • Normative Approach
  • European Union Country