Skip to main content

Ambiguous power? A relational approach to how the EU exercises power in Morocco and Tunisia

Abstract

This article addresses the question of how the EU exercises power in international politics and, in particular, whether or not there is anything distinctive about the ways in which it does so. Taking a relational approach to power, where the focus is on practical knowledge and perceptions of self and other, the paper departs from the assumption that such a question has to be evaluated in specific settings. Extrapolating from the EU’s attempt to influence outcomes in Tunisia and Morocco following the Arab Spring, this paper proposes that the power of ambiguity captures some of the distinctiveness of the EU as a global actor. The paper highlights the ambiguity of what the EU is in the eyes of others, which opens up avenues for exercising power that others lack, not necessarily in accordance with a well-defined agenda, but understood as the production of effects in delimited settings.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Others have conveyed similar understandings by referring to the EU as a ‘civilian’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘ethical’ or, more critically, ‘civilizing’ power (see respectively Duchêne 1973; Eriksen 2006; Aggestam 2008; Schlag 2012).

  2. 2.

    The claim that the EU is a more benign actor than a traditional state, which Manner’s original piece (2002) often is read as implying, has been questioned, most famously by Diez (2005).

  3. 3.

    Indeed, a large part of the research on EU foreign and security policy can be said to be ‘obsessed with actor characteristics’ (Jørgensen 2015, p. 24).

  4. 4.

    It should be noted, however, that many scholars have linked the question of what the EU is to what it does, not least Ian Manners and Thomas Diez.

  5. 5.

    It should be noted that this understanding of relational power differs from the one suggested by Manners (2009, pp. 567–68).

  6. 6.

    A distinction should be made here between Steven Lukes’s understanding of such power as shaping the interests of an already constituted actor, and Foucault’s suggestion that regimes of power/knowledge constitute the actor in the first place (Lukes 2005; Foucault 1990, pp. 88–89).

  7. 7.

    As Foucault puts it in The Birth of Biopolitics, ‘instead of deducing concrete phenomena from universals, or instead of starting with universals as an obligatory grid of intelligibility for certain concrete practices, I would like to start with these concrete practices and, as it were, pass these universals through the grid of these practices’ (Foucault 2008, p. 3).

  8. 8.

    Indeed, Henry Kissinger is said to have defined it as ‘the deliberate use of ambiguous language in a sensitive issue in order to advance some political purpose’ (Berridge and James 2003, p. 51).

  9. 9.

    Interviews were conducted in Tunisia in November and December 2014 and in May and June 2015 with: Tunisian Foreign Ministry officials, six former Tunisian ambassadors, l’Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD), Nissa Tounissiet, La ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme (LTDH), Al Bawsala, Search for Common Ground Tunisia, Solidar Tunisie, an Ennahda MP, a former Ettakatol MP, Human Rights Watch, and several members of the EU Delegation in Tunis (sometimes several times and sometimes with several representatives of the same organisation). Interviews in Morocco were conducted in June 2009 and October 2013 with representatives of the following organisations: several Moroccan Foreign Affairs officials, the EU Delegation in Rabat, the Moroccan State Secretariat for Water and Environment, Commission parlementaire Maroc-UE, l’Agence Marocaine de l’Energie Solaire, l’Institut Amadeus, Fondation Esprit de Fès, the UN resident coordinator in Rabat, and several Moroccan academic experts on EU-Moroccan relations. Interviews were also conducted in October 2008 and June 2015 with officials at the Moroccan representation to the EU in Brussels and officials at the European External Action Service.

  10. 10.

    In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the EU committed itself to increase its assistance to the countries which were deemed to have made the most progress towards democratic reform. This was referred to as the more-for-more principle (European Commission 2011a).

  11. 11.

    Additional funding to Morocco under the SPRING programme (see above) amounts to €80 million, primarily to support to human rights, education, health and rural development.

  12. 12.

    Being the first country in North Africa to be given ‘Advanced Status’ by the EU was also referred to as a source of national pride by several Moroccan interviewees.

References

  1. Adler, Emanuel and Vincent Pouliot, eds (2011) International Practices, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Aggestam, Lisbeth (2008) ‘Introduction: ethical power Europe?’, International Affairs 84(1): 1–11.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Baldwin, David (2013) ‘Power and International Relations’, in Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, and Beth Simmons, eds, Handbook of International Relations, 273–298, London: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Barbé, Esther, Oriol Costa, Anna Herranz-Surrallés and Michal Natorski (2009) ‘Which Rules shape EU’s external governance? The patterns of rule selection in foreign and security policies’, Journal of European Public Policy 16(6): 834‒52.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Barnett, Michael and Raymond Duvall (2005) ‘Power in International Politics’, International Organization 59(1): 39–75.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Benson-Rea, Maureen and Cris Shore (2012) ‘Representing Europe: the emerging “culture” of EU diplomacy’, Public Administration 90(2): 480–96.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Ben Othman, Raoudha (2015) ‘European Union democracy promotion in Tunisia’, in Larbi Sadiki, ed., Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring, 599‒609, London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Berenskoetter, Felix (2007) ‘Thinking about power’, in Felix Berenskoetter and Michael Williams, eds, Power in World Politics, 1‒22, London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Berridge, G. R. and Alan James (2003) A Dictionary of Diplomacy, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Best, Jacqueline (2008) ‘Ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk: rethinking indeterminacy’, International Political Sociology 2(4): 355‒74.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bicchi, Federica (2006) ‘“Our size fits all”: normative power Europe and the Mediterranean’, Journal of European Public Policy 13(2): 286‒303.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bicchi, Federica and Niklas Bremberg (2016) ‘European diplomatic practices: contemporary challenges and innovative approaches’, European security 25(4): 391‒406.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Bicchi, Federica and Benedetta Voltolini (2013) ‘EU democracy assistance in the Mediterranean: what relationship with the Arab uprisings?’, Democracy and Security 9(1–2): 80–99.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Borg, Stefan and Thomas Diez (2016) ‘Postmodern EU? Integration between alternative horizons and territorial angst’, Journal of Common Market Studies 54(1): 136‒51.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Borg, Stefan and Niklas Bremberg (2016) ‘Powerless Europe?’, Global Affairs 2(4): 389‒91.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Boukhars, Anouar (2014) ‘Morocco’s Islamists: Bucking the Trend?’, FRIDE Policy Brief no. 182, Madrid: Fride.

  17. Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Bremberg, Niklas (2016a) ‘Making sense of the EU’s response to the Arab uprisings: foreign policy practice at times of crisis’, European Security 25(4): 423‒41.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Bremberg, Niklas (2016b) Diplomacy and security community-building: EU crisis management in the Western Mediterranean, London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Bueger, Christian and Frank Gadinger, eds (2015) International practice theory: new perspectives, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Carta, Caterina (2014) ‘Use of metaphors and international discourse: The EU as an idiot power, a deceptive Pangloss and a Don Juan in his infancy’, Cooperation and Conflict 49(3): 334–53.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Cavatorta, Francesco and Vincent Durac (2009) ‘Strengthening authoritarian rule through democracy promotion? Examining the paradox of the US and EU security strategies, the case of Bin Ali’s Tunisia’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36(1): 3–19.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Cembrero, Ignacio (2013)’Los islamistas pierden peso en el nuevo gobierno de Marruecos’ [The Islamists are losing influence in the new Moroccan government], El País (10 October).

  24. Council of Europe (2012) ‘Observation of the parliamentary elections in Morocco’, Report Doc. 12832: Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, available at http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=12923&Language=EN (last accessed on 2 July, 2016).

  25. Dandashly, Assem (2014) ‘Building a security community in the neighborhood: zooming in on the EU-Tunisia Relations’, NUPI Working Paper 836, Oslo: NUPI.

  26. Dahl, Robert (1957) ‘The concept of power’, Behavioural Science 2(3): 201–15.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Dean, Mitchell (2010) Governmentality Power and Rule in Modern Society, London: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Del Sarto, Raffaella (2016) ‘Normative empire Europe: the European Union, its borderlands, and the “Arab Spring”’, Journal of Common Market Studies 54(2): 215‒32.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Diez, Thomas (1997) ‘International ethics and European integration: federal state or network horizon?’, Alternatives 22(3): 287–312.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Diez, Thomas (2005) ‘Constructing the Self and Changing Others: Problematising the Concept of “Normative Power Europe”’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 33(3): 613–36.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Diez, Thomas and Ian Manners (2007) ‘Reflecting on normative power Europe’, in Felix Berenskoetter and Michael Williams, eds, Power in World Politics, 173‒88, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Duchêne, François (1973) ‘The European Community and the uncertainties of interdependence’, in Max Kohnstamm and Wolfgang Hager, eds, A Nation Writ Large? Foreign Policy Problems before the European Community, 1‒21, London: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  33. El Qadim, Nora (2013) Négocier l’asymétrie: les politiques extérieures européennes au regard des relations entre acteurs marocains et européens du gouvernement des migrations [Negotiating the asymmetry: European external policy in relation to Moroccan and European governmental actors in the field of migration], doctoral dissertation. Paris: Institut d’études politiques.

  34. Elgström, Ole and Natalia Chaban (2015) ‘Studying external perceptions of the EU: conceptual and methodological approaches’, in Veit Bachmann and Martin Müller, eds, Looking in from the Outside: Perceptions of the EU in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, 17-33, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Eriksen, Erik O. (2006) ‘The EU: a cosmopolitan polity?’, Journal of European Public Policy 13(2): 252–69.

    Google Scholar 

  36. European Commission (2011a) ‘A new and ambitious European Neighbourhood Policy’, press release, Brussels, IP/11/643 (25 May, 2011).

  37. European Commission (2011b) ‘Joint Statement by High Representative Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Štefan Füle on the announcement of the New Constitution of Morocco’, Brussels A238/11 (19 June, 2011).

  38. European Commission (2015) ‘Mise en œuvre de la politique européenne de voisinage au Maroc. Progrès réalisés en 2014 et actions à mettre en oevre’ [Implementing the European Neighbourhood Policy in Morocco. Progress made in 2014 and future actions], Communication conjointe au Parlement Européen, au Conceil, au Comité Economique et Social Européen et au Comité des Régions SWD (2015) 70 final, Brussels: European Commission.

  39. EU Neighbourhood Barometer (2012a) Tunisia.

  40. EU Neighbourhood Barometer (2012b) Morocco.

  41. European Parliament (2011) ‘MEPs offer solidarity with Tunisian protesters but question EU foreign policy’, press release, Brussels: European Parliament.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Foucault, Michel (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 197879, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Foucault, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction, translated by Roberts Hurley, New York: Vintage Books.

  44. George, Alexander and Andrew Bennett (2005) Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Hagström, Linus (2005) ‘Relational power for foreign policy analysis: issues in Japan’s China policy’, European Journal of International Relations 11(3): 395–430.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Howorth, Jolyon (2004) ‘Discourse, ideas, and epistemic communities in European security and defence policy’, West European Politics 27(2): 211‒34.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Hyde-Price, Adrian (2006) ‘“Normative” Power Europe: a Realist Critique’, Journal of European Public Policy 13(2): 217–34.

    Google Scholar 

  48. İşleyen, Beste (2015) ‘The European Union and neoliberal governmentality: twinning in Tunisia and Egypt’, European Journal of International Relations 21(3): 672–90.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Jegen, Maya and Frédéric Mérand (2014) ‘Constructive ambiguity: Comparing the EU’s energy and defence policies’, West European Politics 37(1): 182‒203.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Jurje, Flavia and Sandra Lavenex (2014) ‘Trade agreements as venues for “Market Power Europe”? The case of immigration policy’, Journal of Common Market Studies 52(2): 320–36.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Jørgensen, Knud Erik (2015) ‘Introduction: Theorizing European Foreign Policy’, in Knud Erik Jørgensen, Aasne Kalland Aarstad, Edith Drieskens, Katie Laatikainen Ben Tonra, eds, The Sage Handbook of European Foreign Policy, 75‒85. London: Sage.

  52. Kurki, Milja (2011) ‘Governmentality and EU democracy promotion: the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the construction of democratic civil societies’, International Political Sociology 5(4): 349–66.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Kurki, Milja (2012) ‘How the EU can adopt a new type of democracy support’, FRIDE Working Paper no. 112, Madrid: Fride.

  54. Lavenex, Sandra (2004) ‘EU external governance in “Wider Europe”’, Journal of European Public Policy 11(4): 680–700.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Lavenex, Sandra and Frank Schimmelfennig (2009) ‘EU rules beyond EU borders: theorizing external governance in European politics’, Journal of European Public Policy 16(6): 791–812.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Lucarelli, Sonia and Lorenzo Fioramonti, eds (2011) External Perceptions of the European Union as a Global Actor, London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Lukes, Steven (2005) Power: A Radical View, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Madani, Mohamed, Driss Maghraoui and Saloua Zerhouni (2012) The 2011 Moroccan Constitution: a Critical Analysis, Stockholm: International IDEA.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Malmvig, Helle (2014) ‘Free us from power: governmentality, counter-conduct, and simulation in European democracy and reform promotion in the Arab world’, International Political Sociology 8(3): 293–310.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Manners, Ian (2002) ‘Normative power Europe: A contradiction in terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies 40(2): 235–58.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Manners, Ian (2009) ‘Normative power Europe: A transdisciplinary approach to European Studies’, in Chris Rumford, ed., The SAGE Handbook of European Studies, 561-586, London: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  62. McCourt, David (2016) ‘Practice theory and relationalism as the new constructivism’, International Studies Quarterly 60(3): 475‒85.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Meunier, Sophie and Kalypso Nicolaïdis (2011) ‘The European Union as a trade power’, in Christopher Hill and Michael Smith, eds, International Relations and the European Union, second edition, 275-298, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Mouhib, Leila (2014) ‘EU democracy promotion in Tunisia and Morocco: between contextual changes and structural continuity’, Mediterranean Politics 19(3): 351‒72.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Muhammed VI. (2000) ‘L’allocution de Sa Majesté le Roi Mohammed VI lors du diner offert en l’honneur du Souverain par le Président Jacques Chirac’ [Address by His Majesty King Mohammed VI at the dinner held in his honour offered by President Jacques Chirac], Speech held in Paris, 20 March, 2000.

  66. Neumann, Iver (2002) ‘Returning practice to the linguistic turn: The case of diplomacy’, Millennium 31(3): 627‒51.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Powel, Brieg T. (2009) ‘A clash of norms: normative power and democracy promotion in Tunisia’, Democratization 16(1): 193–214.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Rosato, Sebastian (2011) ‘Europe’s troubles: power politics and the state of the European project’, International Security 35(4): 45–86.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Schatzki, Theodore (2002) The Site of the Social: a Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Schlag, Gabi (2012) ‘Into the “Heart of Darkness”: EU’s civilising mission in the DR Congo’, Journal of International Relations and Development 15(3): 321–44.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Schmidt, Brian C. (2007) ‘Realism and facets of power in international relations’, in Felix Berenskoetter and Michael Williams, eds, Power in World Politics, 43‒63, London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Schumacher, Tobias (2015) ‘The European Union and Democracy Promotion’, in Larbi Sadiki, ed., Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring, 559-573, London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Sjursen, Helene (2006) ‘What kind of power?’, Journal of European Public Policy 13(2): 169–81.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Tagma, Mustafa H., Elif Kalaycioglu and Emel Akcali (2013) ‘“Taming” Arab social movements: exporting neoliberal governmentality’, Security Dialogue 44(5–6): 375–92.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Thomas, Daniel (2012) ‘Still punching below its weight? Coherence and effectiveness in European Union foreign policy’, Journal of Common Market Studies 50(3): 457–74.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Toje, Asle (2011) ‘The European Union as a small power’, Journal of Common Market Studies 49(1): 43–60.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Van Hüllen, Vera (2012) ‘Europeanisation through cooperation? EU democracy promotion in Morocco and Tunisia’, West European Politics 35(1): 117–34.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Walters, William (2012) Governmentality: Critical Encounters, London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  79. Volpi, Frédéric (2012) ‘Explaining (and re-explaining) political change in the Middle East during the Arab Spring: trajectories of democratization and of authoritarianism in the Maghreb’, Democratization 20(6): 969–90.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Wood, Steve (2011) ‘Pragmatic power EUrope?’, Cooperation and Conflict 42(2): 242‒61.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

For constructive comments, many thanks to Dimitris Bouris, Assem Dandashly, Thomas Diez, Nora El Qadim, Beste İşleyen, Laura K. Landolt, Michael Loriaux, Marc Lynch, Ian Manners, Michelle Pace, and Andrea Teti as well as the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of International Relations and Development. A research grant from Särskilda Forskningsprogrammet, at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, made the research undertaken for this article possible. A grant from Riksbankens jubileumsfond (Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences) funded a workshop where a previous version of this article was presented.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Niklas Bremberg.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bremberg, N., Borg, S. Ambiguous power? A relational approach to how the EU exercises power in Morocco and Tunisia. J Int Relat Dev 24, 128–148 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-020-00185-w

Download citation

Keywords

  • Ambiguity
  • EU
  • Practice
  • Relational power