A ‘Bottom-Up’ Perspective on EU-US Relations: The Role of Sub-National Authorities

D. Curtin & E. Fahey (eds.), A Transatlantic Community of Law: Legal Perspectives on the Relationship between the EU and US Legal Orders, Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming

Posted: 23 Oct 2013

Date Written: October 20, 2013


This edited Volume explores several aspects of the relationship between the United States (US) and the European Union. Any initial impression of a ‘bilateral’ EU-US relationship quickly gives way to a complex network emerges composed of actors who engage in formal and informal action in a myriad of policy areas. Within this network, the role of sub-national authorities (SNAs) and regions, both in the United States and in the European Member States, has traditionally gone under-theorized. This chapter sets out to demonstrate that the current and potential role of sub-central entities in external affairs should form part of the broader European multi-level governance research agenda, and starts by making their role in the EU-US relationship explicit.

The autonomy of sub-central authorities in international relations depends on their domestic constitutional status; there are few European sub-national actors that are able to exercise autonomous foreign relations powers, separate from the national level. As there is no formal infrastructure for external action by SNAs – for many sub-national authorities and regions even an intra-EU path is missing – it is difficult to measure their presumed influence on international relations. Within the context of the EU-US relationship, it is comparably testing to ascertain whether there is too much or too little influence of these parties. This raises the question as to whether this overlooked discourse ultimately supplements, or undermines, the dialogue between the ‘federal’ EU and US levels. In order to ascertain the true effect of SNA actors on the EU-US relations, more empirical work is needed. This lack of quantitative data does not prevent us to consider the theoretical obstacles to, and complications of, SNA action. Put differently, what would be the potential benefits of diplomatic activism by sub-central actors? And what would be its dangers? In sum, what are the risks of engaging sub-federal and sub-state entities in international relations?

Firstly, increased SNA involvement may weaken the ‘one voice’ approach of the European Union of the United States and create ‘noise’ within their relationship. Is a ‘one voice’ approach needed in order to create a powerful European Union on the world stage? Or does the EU’s strength lie in its multi-level structure, which should therefore also be incorporated in its external relations? A more fragmented ‘divide and conquer’ tactic would allow for diffuse and intense lobbying by European SNAs and regions, for their own and/or European interests, with their American counterparts may strengthen European influence, regardless of the lack of ‘central’ European representation.

Second, the potential of regions as breeding grounds for active participatory democracy is limited to the extent that it requires civil society actors to conform to e.g. internal standards and codes of conduct in order to be eligible for participation in the EU system. The potential of SNAs as spaces for democracy is thus restricted since the civil society that is stimulated by Europeanization is one that is ‘transnationalised and governmentalized’ and as such likely to be successful and active more on the European, than on the regional and local, level. As ‘local’ civil society is becoming increasingly ‘global’, SNAs are not necessarily the natural, or exclusive, anchor for civil society. At the same time, the recent crises in Europe have left European citizens suspicious of more, or a more central, European Union. The idea that the EU will have to reform locally in order to be able to act globally is gaining traction.

The centrality of the EU-US relationship to the European Union’s international position cannot be ignored, but neither should the internal (sub-national) dynamics of EU’s external action. At the very least, more efforts need to be made to understand these forces, and ground them within more general multi-level governance theory, rather than to rely on a grey market in sub-central diplomacy.

Keywords: European Union, United States, federalism

JEL Classification: K30, K33

Suggested Citation

van Zeben, Josephine A. W., A ‘Bottom-Up’ Perspective on EU-US Relations: The Role of Sub-National Authorities (October 20, 2013). D. Curtin & E. Fahey (eds.), A Transatlantic Community of Law: Legal Perspectives on the Relationship between the EU and US Legal Orders, Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2342842

Josephine A. W. Van Zeben (Contact Author)

Wageningen University and Research ( email )

Hollandseweg 1
Wageningen, 6706KN

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