"The importance of identities in shaping the behavior of actors" / On modern social constructivism and enlargement processes (i.e. nation-building)



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Social Constructivist Approach and the European Union Enlargement Process
by Begum Burak

Social Constructivist Approach’s basic premises underline the important role of identity in shaping the interests of states and in parallel with that in shaping the behaviors of them. Constructivists think that not just material elements of international politics affect states’ policies but also non-material elements like that of identity, shared norms and\ or practices and social interactions among the actors (both states and international organizations) play a major role in shaping states’ policies.

It can be argued that the formation of international organizations such as the European Union (EU) can be evaluated as a clue which shows the role of constructivist thinking in international relations. From this perspective, it is obvious that, the EU enlargement process can well be explained by the help of social constructivism that reveals the importance of identity in the international sphere.

According to social constructivist approach, what actors do in international relations, the interests they hold, and the structures within which they operate are defined by social norms and ideas rather than by purely objective and material conditions. Besides, constructivists assume that continuous interaction among states may have a transformative effect on role identities of states, and consequently on their interests. In the process of social interaction among actors, identities are reproduced. Constructivists have a normative interest in promoting social change, but they pursue this by trying to explain how seemingly natural social structures like self-help or the Cold War are effects of practice.

The European Union (EU) is an economic and political union of 27 member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC) formed by six countries in the 1950s. In the intervening years the EU has grown in size by the accession of new member states, and in power by the addition of policy areas to its remit. The Maastricht Treaty established the European Union under its current name in 1993. The last amendment to the constitutional basis of the EU, the Treaty of Lisbon, came into force in 2009

As known, after World War II, moves towards European integration were seen by many as an escape from the extreme forms of nationalism which had devastated the continent. One such attempt to unite Europeans was the European Coal and Steel Community which, while having the modest aim of centralized control of the previously national coal and steel industries of its member states, was declared to be "a first step in the federation of Europe.( Declaration of 9 May 1950., European Commission)

In the post-Cold War era, the EU enlargement process has got a new dimension along with the emphasis put on the significance on identity. The shift in the identities of the member states while attempting to become a part of the EU is important in revealing the role that social interactions play in the international scene. These social interactions have been intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union as the ideological divisions faded away.


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States acquire identities in the course of interaction with other states. In the case of EU enlargement the interstate relations and interactions lead to the constitution of common norms and practices which in the end through a shift in the identities and interests shape the behavior of the international actors. For example, liberal constructivists would argue that democracy as an identity category is socially constructed in that international norms, ideas and collective meanings define the preconditions of a democratic state. States acquire identities as ‘democratic’ through social recognition, only if the fulfillment of these conditions are recognized and validated by ‘other’ states.

It can be argued that, social constructivist approach can offer powerful accounts for the EU enlargement process precisely because it is based on a notion of intersubjective understandings and discourses being central in shaping over time the identities, interests and interactions of actors – the states –. It can be asserted that social constructivism has enormous potential for the study of the EU. Because unlike mainstream international relations theories, the social constructivist approach underlines the importance of identities in shaping the behavior of actors. Looking from this perspective it would not be hard to see the emphasis put on the political identity of the EU. The member states’ need to adopt certain values such as democracy, rule of law and liberty highlight the role of identity in the EU enlargement process. Also in terms of interests, social constructivism has much to offer the EU integration process because, social constructivism does not see interests as fixed.

Begum Burak has a BA degree in Political Science and International Relations from Marmara University, Turkey. She completed her MA degree in Istanbul University, Turkey (majoring in Turkish political life) in 2010. She has been currently occupied as a Research Assistant at Fatih University, Turkey where she is a PhD candidate.

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