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“Should I Stay or Should I go?” The European Union in International Organizations


What is the role of the European Union in the contemporary global governance system? The scholarly debate about the EU’s status in global governance has generated much controversy, with some arguing that the Union’s internal decision-making processes hamper its options to exert greater influence in global politics. Unless the Union overhauls its internal modes of operation, it would become irrelevant in the current global order. By contrast, others suggest that the EU is an influential global economic actor given the sheer size and wealth of its common market and its regulatory expertise. According to this perspective, Brussels wields significant authority over other global actors within both formal and informal governance arrangements.

These controversies show that much uncertainty still exists about the place and influence of the EU in world politics. As a result, we examine the EU’s involvement as an actor in its own right in the contemporary global governance system. To do so, we first ask what defines the global governance system. We suggest that this system is characterized by the exercise of authority by IOs. Second, we assess how IOs exercise authority as this helps us to delimit the very ways in which the EU can partake in and influence global policies. Having identified the relevant institutional landscape, we then investigate the EU’s active participation in other IOs and analyze the factors that could drive it.

Recent scholarship defines global governance as the exercise of authority by IOs. With the end of World War II, the world has witnessed a remarkable growth of international organizations across all substantive policy fields, ranging from the maintenance of international peace, over financial stability, to mitigating climate change. The strong quantitative growth of international institutions has also transformed world politics qualitatively. International organizations formulate policy agendas and generate substantive expertise; they propose and monitor rules of conduct between states, and, more generally, they adopt policies to further the provision of public goods for a more encompassing, even global, community. Such institutional rules and practices often limit state autonomy in important ways. In this sense, IOs exercise authority over states, as well as other global actors.

Leveraging a new dataset on the formal-legal authority of 34 IOs ranging from 1920 until 2013 (see The International Authority Database Project), we find that IO authority has remarkably grown after the end of the Cold War. Especially regional organizations (e.g. African Union) became increasingly authoritative after the collapse of the bipolar world order, surpassing the average authority levels of global IOs (e.g. World Trade Organization). The overall rise of international authority, however, is unequally distributed. That is, not all IOs share comparable authority levels but vary considerably. Some wield barely any influence over their member states (e.g. Commonwealth Secretariat), while others (e.g. European Union) convey high levels of organizational autonomy and binding policy-making vis-à-vis their member states. Similarly, authority is unequally distributed across substantive issue areas, with the most authoritative organizations being multi-issue (e.g. EU or United Nations) and economic IOs (e.g. International Monetary Fund or World Bank), followed by security organizations (e.g. North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and lastly by human rights organizations (e.g. International Labor Organization or UNESCO).

Integrating findings from other contributions of the GLOBE project, we also find that our data well illustrate several key developments. For example, the Bank for International Settlement’s low formal authority reflects the high degree of informality in global finance. Moreover, while multi-issue IOs’ have on average high authority levels, their regulatory competences are not equally distributed across the policy field within the organization. For example, whereas WMD non-proliferation is authoritatively governed by the UN Security Council, climate change governance is relegated to a vast UN-related network of transnational conferences and summits with significantly less formal authority.

What is the position of the EU within the contemporary global governance system as described? Since its creation, the EU has been one of the most authoritative organizations in world politics. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 expanded the Union’s mandate and competences even further, turning the EU into the most authoritative IO. This high degree of formal authority confers on the EU the capacity to act relatively autonomously from its member states and establish and maintain relations with third parties, such as other IOs and transnational non-state actors.

Using our data on IO authority, we find that the EU has become over time an important actor of global politics in its own right: by the mid-2010s, the Union is represented in half of all IOs, as our estimates suggest, in addition to and sometimes even in place of its member states. We define representation quite broadly, subsuming under this term both the existence of a diplomatic EU mission to another IO (e.g. African Union), formal observer status (e.g. United Nations General Assembly), and full membership (e.g. Food and Agriculture Organization). The EU is strongly represented in global multilateral organizations (out of all global IOs, the EU is present in 74% of them). Concerning individual issue areas, the EU is most often present in multi-issue IOs, followed by security, economic, and lastly human rights organizations.

Whether the EU is present or not in other IOs helps us understand whether and how many official relations the EU has with other global governance organizations. However, to better assess its potential influence in global governance, we also scrutinize the Union’s active participation in other IOs. Often, IOs accord other actors, such as transnational non-state groups and other international organizations, formal status within the IO, granting them thereby some institutional possibilities to exercise some influence over policy-making. For example, the observer status is typically tied to participation and speaking rights in meetings and often also to the right to propose agenda items. Full membership represents the highest formal participation in IOs as full members have also voting rights and directly influence IO policies and decisions. For the present discussion, we focus on the EU being either an observer or a full member to other IOs and regard both of these two types of involvement as active participation. The reason is that both types grant the Union some formal-institutional rights to influence an IO’s policies. Moreover, many IOs do not foresee full membership for other IOs (e.g. the United Nations), and hence the maximum formal status the EU can attain is that of an observer.  

When focusing on how actively the EU participates in other IOs, we find that the EU is most often an observer or a full member in economic IOs. Its high active participation in economic IOs indicates that the EU potentially exercises most of its formal clout over organizations governing the global economy. This finding is in line with recent contributions that emphasize the EU’s paramount role and influence in regulating global and regional markets (see, GLOBE webinar on The Brussels Effect by Anu Bradford). Moreover, our analysis suggests that the Union’s strong unilateral market power matches its substantial involvement in economic IOs.

More generally, we find that the EU actively participates in those IOs that relate to the Union’s exclusive and shared competences. Accordingly, the EU does not actively participate (in the sense of being either an observer or a full member) in security IOs because EU member states retain their prerogatives and competences over the Common Security and Foreign Policy (CSFP). Our study confirms previous hypotheses and qualitative findings that EU involvement in other IOs depends on the Union’s policy competences.

However, other questions that have received far less attention concerns the authority of those IOs in which the Union actively participates. For example, the EU’s CSFP depends on states’ consent (unanimity decision making with weak centralized EU policies), yet at the same time, security IOs are also relatively weak in terms of their formal authority. By contrast, economic and multi-issue IOs are the most authoritative organizations in global governance; the EU’s active participation in them is high and substantial. In short, being actively involved in IOs with high authority might matter more for global regulations and policies than seeking full membership in IOs with little regulatory and political influence. Therefore, it is important to analyze the relation between an IO’s authority and the EU’s type of participation in it.

In our quantitative analysis, we find that more IO authority is associated with active EU participation. Across all issue areas and for each increase in an IO’s authority, the probability of the EU’s active involvement in that IO grows by about 20%. Moreover, we also find that the EU is more likely to participate in global than in regional IOs actively. Regional IOs tend to reduce the likelihood of the EU’s active participation by about 78%, compared to global ones. Taken together, our findings show that the EU participates actively in global and highly authoritative organizations.

Our study presents an additional factor to consider when assessing the role of the EU in contemporary global governance: the authority of IOs as a crucial feature of global politics. Authoritative organizations, like the EU, seem to become actively involved in other authoritative IOs. The Union not only engages in issue areas that matter to it but also with those institutions that possess the institutional capacity to act relatively autonomously and to adopt binding rules with a global reach.

Alexandros Tokhi is Research Fellow at the Research Unit Global Governance, WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Irem Ebetürk is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Unit Global Governance, WZB Berlin Social Science Center