The European Union : International Relation Theories


The foundation of the European Community (EC), which later evolved into the European Union (EU), is considered an achievement of twenty-century world politics. Being a supranational entity, the EU represents a particular interest in political studies. The Union became a powerful actor in modern politics, which causes the need for its integration and genesis explanation. The EU structure is usually considered unique or exceptional due to its mixed political approach (Rosato, 2011). In the essay, major IR theories are discussed through the example of the EU structure. First of all, the brief history of the EU formation is provided, then IR theories are described. The formation process is analyzed through the lens of liberal, realist, and constructivist approaches.

A Brief History of the European Union

The idea of European integration is based on the aim of eliminating conflicts between neighbors. However, the legacy of the World Wars defined the formation of the Union. To secure peace Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) began to unite countries in economic alliance (The history of the European Union, 2020). As a result, in 1957, the European Economic Community (EEC) was created as an expanded trade area (Kaushiva, 2019). Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands became the EU’s founders. The 1960s are characterized by economic growth, resulting in the fact that EU countries “stop charging custom duties when they trade with each other” (The history of the European Union, 2020, para. 3). ECSC and EEC merging in 1967 reinforced the integration process, after which other countries joined the Union (The history of the European Union, 2020, para. 4). Thus, by the end of the century, it became necessary to revise the legal basis of the foundation.

Since the mid-1980s, European integration has experienced a period of growth by adopting several important institutional changes. Acceptance of the Single European Act (SEA) in 1987, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999 led to fundamental changes in the history of European integration, as well as a shift in the power disposition within the Union (Geo History, 2020). In addition to changes in the contractual base, the number of participating countries expanded in the 1990s. Thus, the European Union is a unique phenomenon globally, which played an essential role in maintaining peace after the World Wars.


Liberalism is the oldest concept of IR theories focusing on creating a more peaceful and just international order. The liberal organization’s principle assumes that actors’ interdependence can result “in increasing cooperation and thereby ensure international security” (Cox & Campanaro, 2016, p. 97). In other words, two or more actors rely on each other for essential goods and services. However, such a model limits actors’ autonomy, resulting in the need to consider each participant’s impact on others. On the other hand, liberalism generates harmony of interests eliminating conflicts between members of the Union. The central liberal goal is to “establish conditions for a sustainable peace in the otherwise anarchic international arena” (Cox & Campanaro, 2016, p. 99). Thereby, the liberal institutional system is focused on creating a collection of international organizations working towards related purposes. About the EU, it is fair to consider interdependence as a central liberalism concept.

Although the Union has common organizations, they cannot influence the decisions and actions of the participants. Countries are sovereign, except in cases of threats to peace and security. However, any potential solution to international problems requires the cooperation of a large number of actors. Therefore, the EU, as a liberal interdependent structure, strives to establish effective international governance. Nevertheless, as Rosato (2011) states, “the historical record lends little support to the liberal explanation for integration” (p. 78). First of all, there is convincing evidence for the European interdependence because Germany and France were less export-dependent on their partners in the 1950s than in the 1910s. Moreover, their military forces were not integrated, which is controversial to the liberal idea (Rosato, 2011). Members of the EU are also unwilling to submit their manufacture to the supranational authority, preferring a free trade area rather than an integrated common market (Rosato, 2011). Thus, the European Union illustrates only its members’ nominal codependency, representing only part of the liberal features.


Realism is the name of a group of IR theories that emerged after the Second World War. The theory assumes that international actors accumulate power to provide for their survival (Cox & Campanaro, 2016). In contrast to liberalism, realists tend to ignore the principles of peace and justice. The main goal of the theory is the pursuit of power. Realism focuses on violent conflicts and wars, ignoring peaceful international societies (Cox & Campanaro, 2016). Liberalism considers international institutions as a source of establishing order in an archaic environment. On the other hand, realism notes the importance of “an archaic international system inhabited by sovereign states” (Cox & Campanaro, 2016, p. 107). The theory argues that if the global government does not exist to establish rules, states may act according to their need for power. About the European Union, it is reasonable to consider defensive realism as a central realism concept.

Being a part of structural realism, the theory of defensive realism considers the pursuit of power as a crucial part of international relations. Both offensive and defensive realism strive to explain the nature of conflicts. However, the offensive realism theory argues the legitimacy of hegemony to increase state power resources. Contrary, defensive realism focused on establishing security through power (Pashakhanlou, 2016). The European Union accumulates resources and power to be able to respond to international threats. Moreover, European countries reject liberal views and prospects on integrating military power, preferring to cooperate (Rosato, 2011). For defensive realism encourages moderate behavior and satisfaction with world power balance (Pashakhanlou, 2016). Although the EU participates in balancing world power (sanctions, for instance), European countries do that without aggression. They are trying to maintain a containment policy for rapidly developing countries, which may pose a potential threat.


Constructivism theory emerged later than liberalism and realism. The approach considers the nature of differences between the assumptions of realism and liberalism. Both ideas consider international anarchy as a constant world state but find different responses to it. The main goal of constructivism is to explain that various situations do not have the same results (Cox & Campanaro, 2016). Therefore, actors may make decisions depending on circumstances by their goals. The EU perfectly illustrates modern constructivism, assuming that every international event is a product of social interaction (Cox & Campanaro, 2016). As has been noticed, European countries observe the situation and choose the best solution, whether it is liberal or realistic. Thus, in structuralism, actors “diverge because they hold different beliefs” (Parsons, 2002, p. 78). Participants of the Union interact with each other, nevertheless, being sovereign and pursuing not only common goals but also individual ones.


The European Union is a unique international structure, combining features of several theories. Sharing the structural point of view chooses the best way of existing using liberal or realistic tools. Nevertheless, the foundation’s main purpose is to establish peace and eliminate conflicts, which is close to liberalism. However, to be powerful and maintain international balance, it is essential to react and prevent threats, which is common for a realistic theory. Thus, the EU adapts to the changing conditions of international relations, adhering to the original goal.


Cox, M., & Campanaro, R. (2016). Introduction to international relations: undergraduate study in economics, management, finance and the social sciences. University of London.

Geo History. (2020). The European Union [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Kaushiva, A. (2019). Britain and EU relations from the formation of the European Union to “the Brexit” – a brief review. International Journal of Social Science and Economic Research, 4(5), 3406-3418.

Parsons, C. (2002). Showing ideas as causes: The origins of the European Union. International Organization, 56(1), 47-84.

Pashakhanlou, A. H. (2016). Realism and fear in international relations: Morgenthau, Waltz and Mearsheimer reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan.

Rosato, S. (2011). Europe’s troubles: Power politics and the state of the European project. International Security, 35(4), 45-86.

The history of the European Union. (2020). European Union. Web.

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