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