Concentric EU Order as a Function of Geopolitical Subjectivity

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Concentric EU Order as a Function of Geopolitical Subjectivity

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3. Concentric EU Order as a Function of Geopolitical Subjectivity

The ‘recognition games’ pertaining to the concentric EU order actually convey a more general phenomenon. The intersubjective ‘recognition games’ between the Union, member states and for example Russia and its northwestern regions, are here conceptualised as being about recognition of the Union’s geopolitical subjectivity (Aalto 2002). In other words, mutual recognitions of the Union’s geopolitical subjectivity can theoretically give rise to various forms of geopolitical subjectivity, such as a Westphalian-federal super-state of Europe, a regionalised European order, etc. (Aalto 2002; 2004). However, it is argued here that in place of these two theoretical forms, the recognition of Russia and its northwestern regions of the Union’s subjectivity in northern Europe rather lend added credence to the Union’s concentric order project. The north European manifestations of a currently forming concentric EU order are thus a function of the outcomes of the contemporary ‘recognition games’ of the Union’s subjectivity within the region. Why is this sort of conceptualisation in terms of ‘geopolitical subjectivity’ preferred here, instead of in a more commonplace manner conceiving of the EU’s contemporary order project towards its members and neighbours as a function of its ‘actorness’ or ‘presence’?

The most commonplace criticism of treating the EU as an actor among others asserts that the Union has been unable to transform its economic muscle into ‘political’ influence (e.g. Medrano 1999). It has been claimed that compared to many other actors in its environment, the Union all too often fails to act decisively and in an instrumental manner, due to several factors such as lack of tangible and operationalisable capabilities, its internal policy-making processes that are subject to too complicated rules, and conflicting member state interests (see e.g. Hill 1993; Ginsberg 1999; Hoffmann 2000; Ojanen 2000). As Bretherton and Vogler (1999: 44) correctly note, statements of this sort are in danger of ultimately comparing the Union to the most traditional type of agents of world politics – Westphalian states. Moreover, Bretherton and Vogler conclude, whilst analysing in more detail the EU’s actorness, which they think is neither easily nor fruitfully comparable to any other presently existing entity, that

‘…the EU is a multi-faceted actor; indeed it can appear to be several different actors, sometimes simultaneously… it is regarded by International Lawyers as an international organization sui generis… In other circumstances it has state-like qualities which cannot be divorced from territoriality, in the sense that stringent rules operate in relation to the flow of goods, and of people, into its space. Moreover, as representatives of states applying for EU membership would confirm, the EU as a ’network’ is remarkable impenetrable’ (p. 31)
Bretherton and Vogler’s multi-faceted, multi-actor model of the EU’s actorness ends up incorporating into itself a modified version of the notion of ‘presence’ introduced by Allen and Smith (1990) more than a decade ago for the purpose of rounding the problem of terming the EU an actor, a concept that they felt at the time was too demanding for depicting the Union’s regional and global dimensions. In Bretherton and Vogler’s application of the concept, presence denotes the consequences of the Union’s internal processes such as the single market and successive enlargement rounds that have made it a ‘multi-present’ entity which other organisations and powers have to take into account in various sectors. These sectors range from the external consequences of the single market such as common customs tariffs, to the transboundary effects of the Schengen regime that attempts to strengthen the Union’s external borders whilst lifting a lot of the internal controls. On this basis, Bretherton and Vogler suggest that reactions of external powers and other actors to the EU’s presence, and the EU’s own consequent policy responses, if any, together work to construct the Union’s ‘unique’ actorness (Bretherton and Vogler 1999: 6, 257). Their model thus grasps the Union’s presence, and external reactions and the Union’s counter-reactions – capabilities and opportunities permitting – and is by all accounts insightful regarding the actorness of the EU across the whole constellation of different geographical directions and policy sectors. Concomitantly, it is suggested here that especially in the context of northern Europe, it has conceptual and ethico-political limitations, which, it is suggested here, open the door for an alternative conceptualisation.

First, as to the conceptual limitations of their model, it is of note that as so many others, it continues to operate with the concept of ‘presence’ invented in a time when the contemporary Union did not even exist. At that time, the international status of what still was the European Community (EC) revolved around the external effects of its communitarian-based economic co-operation in the form of membership and joint (EU-wide) action in international organisations, and the intergovernmentally organised European Political Co-operation (EPC), which was institutionalised by the 1986 Single European Act. Suffice it to say here that the institutional developments thereafter – the many rounds of making new treaties; the initiating of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and a European rapid reaction force; as well as the strengthening of the Commission’s role in ‘external relations’; and finally, the devising of an EU constitution specifying the Union’s goals explicitly – are helping to make the Union a much more self-conscious and goal-oriented entity than it was at the turn of the 1990s. This is the case especially vis-à-vis the Union’s immediate post-enlargement neighbourhood. In short, the contention here is that ‘presence’ is becoming a far too passive and a-political concept to function as the basis of conceptualising the Union’s actorness as regards all geographical directions and policy sectors.

To take an example of the north European direction, it is of note how Bretherton and Vogler (1999) themselves point out how enlargement is helping to transform the Union vis-à-vis its neighbourhood. They contend that in the context of the Union’s relations with Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries – of which the Baltic states, and with reservations, Poland, can be termed north European – the Union not only occupies a ‘formidable’ presence (p. 168), but also seems to have managed to fully materialise it into ‘unprecedented’ actorness during the accession process, with the Commission playing the most central part (pp. 149-50). If the Union has in this case practically been termed a fully-fledged actor (pp. 248, 256), one starts wondering whether presence, a concept initially invented to round the problem of terming the EU an ‘actor’, should still be kept on board. However, further problems include the fact that as the Baltic states are gradually becoming semi-insiders through processes of ‘europeanisation’ regarding both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ policies, they are by definition in the process of becoming part of EU presence and actorness on Russia’s borders. As the Baltic states’ ‘europeanisation’ is making the Union’s presence a useless concept in their case, it is concomitantly making it increasingly relevant in Russia’s case. This means that the presence/actorness model is loosing its conceptual import in operationalising the EU’s involvement in northern Europe on the whole.

Second, although this might seem to shift the Union’s north European presence towards Russia, thus leaving EU-Russian relations a suitable area of applying the conceptualisation, it should be noted that also here some limitations are at issue, both of conceptual and ethico-political nature. Those utilising this mantra-like presence/actorness toolkit, and who often have more or less close ties to the ‘multi-level governance’ school of European integration, may frequently lament that the ‘foreign policy on the European level seems to be “crab-wise”, incremental, and lacking any kind of master plan and strategic policy-making’ (Gänzle 2002: 98). The notion of incremental progress in policy-making is definitely in many ways correct, but it concomitantly raises questions. For example, it can be claimed that foreign policy indeed fairly often emerges in an incremental and somewhat messy manner, as for example Gerard Toal has shown in the case of US policy on Bosnia (Toal 2002). Moreover, the notion of many incremental steps taken begs the question of whether they will at some point help us to speak of something reminiscent if not of a ‘master plan’, then at least patterns of goal-oriented action emerging out of them. Merely assuming that taking many, even incremental steps does not in any manner help in identity building and interest formation, ends up strengthening the familiar image of the Union as a faceless entity, where policy outcomes simply ‘happen’ without anyone or any institutional bodies really being responsible. This ‘process without a subject’ image of EU enlargement is well evident in Bretherton and Vogler’s (1990) own comment:

The subsequent expansion of EC involvement, and in particular of the Commission’s role, flowed from the gradual evolution of an understanding that enlargement was inevitable; that CEE countries were, indeed, ‘central’ to Europe. This understanding has shaped EC/EU action despite a lack of strong commitment to enlargement among Member State governments and, indeed, within the Commission (p. 150; emphasis added).

In short, conceiving of enlargement in terms of ‘magnetism without a magnet’ seems to elude goal-oriented action and thus, responsibility – who does what and for what ends. For example, let us note how Russia tried, but was unable to find support from member states for its concerns in 2002 in connection to the problems ensuing of Kaliningrad’s encirclement by Schengen countries as a result of EU enlargement to Lithuania and Poland. Although considerable pressures for erecting Schengen regime around Kaliningrad came from member states, it is noteworthy that they had assigned primary responsibility for the implementation of the policy to the Commission, in order to protect the Union’s space from the ‘soft security’ risks seen as emanating from the region. Russia failed to grasp this adequately, and at final moments prior to the eventual EU-Russian agreement sought largely pointless meetings with member state governments to voice its concerns for the ensuing visa and transit problems for the Kaliningraders. But what is the thread of the argument here, is that Russia never asked whether the Schengen policy is an internally driven consequence of the Union’s enlarging presence, or not, and simply attributed responsibility for the problems to various Union bodies and EU representatives. The Union, by contrast, attributed primary responsibility for Kaliningrad and its problems to Russia, and also tried to appeal to Lithuania’s sovereign right to apply to and join the Union, and its consequent obligation to adopt the Schengen treaty (‘Communication…’; ‘EU-Russia…’). In other words, Russia assumed goal-oriented behaviour was involved, and was looking for a responsible body, and the Union as a whole was trying to evade responsibility, thus trying to create a ‘process without a subject’ effect.

The conceptual and ethico-political lesson from the Kaliningrad episode is that the term ‘presence’ does not always particularly fruitfully help us to answer the moral questions that the Union’s neighbours in northern Europe are posing to it. In fact, the term ‘presence’ – which originally was invented to describe the EU’s regional and global dimensions – does not in this case help us particularly well to understand the views held by the Union’s neighbours and other powers of its actorness. Due to the fact that the concept derives from the Union’s ‘internal’ developments, it is not ideally equipped to deal with the intersubjective realities of regional and global politics, and the ethico-political conflicts to be found in those realities.

To summarise this brief critique of commonplace conceptualisations of the Union’s global and regional dimensions, it can be asserted that in the specific context of northern Europe, they either offer too particular or general solutions. Actorness understood in a traditional manner is a too prescriptive and thus particular concept, immediately and ill-advisedly positioning the Union against a Westphalian template. Actorness married with ‘presence’, for its part, is a too general conceptualisation. It continues to be relevant in many other directions, but importantly, not in all directions, especially in northern Europe, where it fails to provide a parsimonious account of the EU’s post-enlargement involvement on the whole. Moreover, in the north European context it is also a somewhat disorienting conceptualisation, frustratingly sweeping aside serious ethico-political considerations of the Union’s degree of goal-orientedness and responsibility, and keeping on board the concept of presence that is not really needed for understanding ‘external’ views of the EU.

On this basis, an alternative conceptualisation of the Union’s involvement in northern Europe is suggested. It provides us with a new departure in portraying the Union’s contemporary order project as a function of a subject-construction process, understood in the Merleau-Pontyian sense in terms of situated subjectivity (Crossley 1996). This alternative casts the EU as the main subject of north European politics with an explicit, although constantly evolving identity and interest basis, providing prospects of goal-oriented action, but importantly, also a prospect to refrain from acting in a given situation, as the EU often does, at least in the eyes of its critics. In other words, an intersubjectively defined concept of subjectivity can account for situations in which other collective subjects such as Russia invest the EU with a considerable degree of subjectivity by recognising it as a legitimate and/or able subject, and yet, the EU declines to respond by means of any goal-oriented action, in that way reflecting a relatively weak ‘internal’ constitution of subjectivity. Alternatively, in such a case at issue can be identity or interest based factors in the constitution of the Union’s subjectivity, instructing the Union not to act. Either way, conceptualising the EU in such an instance as having ‘zero degree’ of actorness would be useless for operational purposes. Conceptualising the EU in terms of presence/actorness, for its part, would only invoke the limitations mentioned above. However, the added value of conceptualisation in terms of subjectivity is that it covers simultaneously both the ‘internal’ identity and interest construction processes, the perceptions of other collective subjects of their conduct, and the degree of ‘europeanisation’ that they relate to the Union by expecting its constituent parts and supranational institutions to act in the name of the Union, in one way or another.

To take an example of the prospects offered by this alternative conceptualisation, let us recall how the Union has started to manifest its evolving subjectivity by taking a new look at its soon-to-be enlarged borders through the ‘wider Europe’ concept, among others singling out some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. However, although Russia has gradually come to accept increasing EU subjectivity in the BSR and northern Europe on the whole, and in many other directions, Russia’s EU strategy mentions that Russia will oppose any ‘possible attempts to hamper the economic integration in the CIS, in particular, through maintaining “special relations” with individual countries of the Commonwealth to the detriment of Russia’s interests’ (‘Russia’s…’; Aalto 2002; 2004). Russia thus recognises the EU as a serious subject at the general plane, and also as a subject worthy of addressing in matters of CIS policy, but in this particular geographical area Russia denies the EU a considerable degree of actorness.

To put it shortly, the example serves to show how the concept of subjectivity does not presuppose any problematic notions of actorness, nor does it imply an inherently passive and a-political conception of presence. Rather, it directs our attention to the intersubjective processes of recognising and building subjects, and eventually, if applicable, actors, and does this under a single umbrella concept incorporating into itself both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ aspects of intersubjective processes, even in cases where complete actorness does not ensue. Moreover, in including only an analytical ‘internal/external’ distinction, the concept of subjectivity is also suited for elucidating the construction of a concentric EU order with no clear limits as to where the Union’s ‘wider Europe’ begins and ends. In this fashion, subjectivity allows us to situate under the same roof the EU’s ‘internally’ driven policies such as the Schengen treaty, and actions under the CFSP label, without having to think whether the EU has a ‘foreign policy’ or mere ‘external relations’, a distinction which is hard to sustain outside the ‘EU-speak’.

With this sort of conceptualisation of the EU in terms of subjectivity, what for do we need the prefix ‘geopolitical’? In brief, the term ‘geopolitics’, accounting for a ‘geopolitical subject’, is employed here in order to accentuate the spatial-territorial dimension of the EU’s ordering efforts in northern Europe that is of interest here, as opposed to a functional or sectoral dimension for example in the field of economic and budgetary policy, or mere legal competence. On the whole, the strongly intersubjective character of geopolitical subjectivity is reflected in its definition as goal-oriented ordering of territories and political spaces, extending from one’s own sphere of sovereign rule to broader regional contexts (Aalto 2002: 148-51).

4. Russia’s Recognition of the Union’s Subjectivity in Northern Europe

The Russian recognition of the EU’s subjectivity vis-à-vis its northwestern interface with the Union, can in a constructivist manner be divided into the strongly interrelated but analytically separable identity and interest aspects. Because identities and interests represent highly political and constructed categories and are subject to change not only in major political upheavals, but also in day-to-day political skirmishes, I opt to speak of them as ‘projects’ (Aalto 2002: 157). To examine the Russian recognition of the EU’s subjectivity in northern Europe systematically, in this paper I divide identity and interest projects into two sub-aspects (Table 1).

Table 1: Theoretical Model: Recognition of Geopolitical Subjectivity

Component of recognition



Identity projects


Temporal considerations in the recognition of geopolitical subjectivity (e.g. assessment of the development and present state of integration within the Union)


Spatial considerations in the recognition of geopolitical subjectivity (e.g. assessment of the desirable spatial organisation, geographical extent and regional operating environment of the EU)

Interest projects


Assessment of the degree and desirability of purposeful, goal-oriented action by a geopolitical subject in a particular sector or issue area (e.g. the EU’s enlargement policy in northern Europe)


Assessment of the overall constellation of policies by a geopolitical subject across sectors or issue areas (e.g. the EU’s overall goals in northern Europe)

Identity projects can be divided into the sub-aspects of time and space. Identity projects thus are about the historic struggles for constructing political spaces and their boundaries. This makes identity a relational concept that represents the relationship between the ‘self’ and ‘other’ in time and space. As for interest projects, I argue that they always involve considerations of geo-policy and geo-strategy. Geo-policy refers to purposeful, goal-oriented and institutionalised action in a particular sector or issue area with territorial or spatial consequences, especially as regards boundary construction, and in more rare cases, boundary-breaking. Geo-policy also gives instructions on how to use the resources within each sector or issue area. By contrast, geo-strategy is a broader concept. It refers to the overall constellation of geo-policies across different sectors or issue areas. Geo-strategy gives instructions on how to allocate resources between different sectors or issue areas. For example, the EU’s geo-strategy in northern Europe is the ‘sum’ of the EU’s geo-policies towards different sectors or issue areas such as the enlargement and the arranging of its relations with Kaliningrad and the rest of northwest Russia (cf. Aalto 2002: 157-158).

Below I will examine each of these sub-aspects – time and space in the case of identity projects, geo-policy and geo-strategy in the case of interest projects – in more detail in order to outline the main aspects of Russia’s officially sanctioned recognition of the EU’s subjectivity in northern Europe, i.e. pertaining to the ‘strategic partnership’ level. This discussion reflects on the extent to which federal level Russia supports the idea of assigning stronger subjectivity for the Union in a region where Russia has traditionally exercised considerable influence, and thus, on the extent to which Russia subscribes to the Union’s ‘wider Europe’ concept. This discussion will be followed by an account of the competing recognitions assigned to the EU in Russia’s Kaliningrad region, which manifests probably the clearest example of how the regional level differs from the federal.

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