Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Inter-organisational relations as a factor shaping the EU's external identity

Hanna Ojanen

September 2004

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Among the EU research community, the general consensus of opinion is that the Union is an actor in international relations, and that it wields some kind of power over its member states, in some cases even over outsiders, at least in its near abroad, be that power structural (Rynning 2003) or normative (Manners 2002). What is debated, however, is the nature of the Union’s identity. Typically, the debate often centres around the EU’s external profile being that of a ‘civilian power’ versus a military one, or something in between.

The question of what kind of identity the EU has is closely linked to another basic question, namely, why the external identity of the Union is what it is, and what are the factors shaping it. What does the external identity of an entity such as the EU actually depend on?

Most often, the EU’s external identity is studied as a function of its member states’ wishes, or alternatively, as a function of the Union’s internal features, of the process of integration, the nature of its institutions and decision-making mechanisms. Yet, external expectations by third states are also a widely acknowledged factor, as is public opinion. These factors can be employed, for example, to explain the limits of possible consensus on the EU’s external action, or, as is often the case, to elucidate why something is not happening, the absence of certain features, and the difficulty of certain moves, such as the EU’s not emerging as a powerful international actor using a single voice.

This paper, however, will turn its attention to other factors shaping that identity, and more specifically, to the role of other international organisations. The scant scholarly interest in this topic to date can be explained by at least three facts. Firstly, the EU is often defined beyond comparison by emphasising its sui generis features. For many, in fact, it is akin to heresy to call the EU an ‘international organisation’. Since the abandonment of the early attempts at systematic comparative analysis of regional integration in the 1960s, the sui generis approach has been predominant. Unfortunately, however, it is a somewhat unhelpful standpoint: inhibiting the use of comparison as a method, it renders the understanding of the particularities of the EU, including those regarding its interaction with other organisations, more difficult, rather than easier. Even though the Union undoubtedly has state-like capacities and goals, and a territorial dimension that is of greater importance when compared with most organisations of a ‘functional’ nature, it nevertheless seems useful to revert to general literature on international organisations to gauge some of its specificities more clearly.

A second reason for the existence of a gap in conceptual and theoretical analysis of interorganisational relations is that a lot of work on international organisations gets caught up in the controversies regarding the question of whether international organisations can be considered independent actors in the first place. Thirdly, in the empirical world, international organisations might only be starting to face up to a real need for, and the ensuing problems of, interaction with other organisations.

In this paper, the central claim is that international organisations exist and function in an environment which not only comprises states, but also other organisations. Organisations influence each other and shape each other’s identities and functions; there might be competition and cooperation between them, but also a conceptual and methodological innovation exchange. These phenomena are exemplified in the paper through the relationship