Is the European Union a complex adaptive actor?


Since its creation, the European Union has aimed to become a key international actor, promoting regional integration, democracy, the rule of law and human rights through its numerous international development programmes around the world. Yet, we should not forget a complementary dynamic that is as important as the EU attempts to diffuse its own institutional practices and values. This concerns how the EU learns from other actors, and adapts to practices proposed by other countries and international organizations. Therefore, we need to understand how and if the EU is an adaptive actor. Closely related to this, the European Union has been described as a complex system, due to its institutional structure, evolving nature and its inherent contradictions. The complexity of the EU system means that the European Union learns from its crises, successes and challenges, and adapts, evolves and improves its policy responses. Yet, this tends to happen in complex and unpredictable ways.

Thus, when analyzing the EU we deal with a complex adaptive actor which is also a learning entity. In my article, ‘The European Union: From a Complex Adaptive System to a Policy Interpreter’, I debate how the EU as an international actor opens to the outside environment and learns from it through feedback loops, while adapting as a result of changes that happen outside the EU system of actors. Taking international development as a case study, I show how the EU learns by sensing information and relevant changes in institutional practices and mechanisms of interaction between non-EU actors. Therefore, the EU actors interpret the nature of these changes and the urgency of institutional adaptation, and, subsequently, start to adapt their institutional practices. However, since the EU is a complex system, this adaptation process does not happen in a linear way, and involves reiteration, imperfect adaptation and imitation of institutional practices that contradict other existing EU policies.

I apply this approach in order to discuss the EU efforts for achieving international aid effectiveness. This has involved the EU participation in international forums such as the Paris Declaration (2005), the Accra Agenda (2008) and the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (2011). In this context, the EU has aimed to adapt its policy practices and carry out development at the most appropriate level, being inclusive in terms of actors and encouraging ownership by the beneficiary country. While the EU was trying to figure out the best policy approaches in order to make the most effective use of its aid budget, non-EU actors started implementing programmes going beyond top‐down approaches and using new policy practices such as horizontal cooperation between peers. This change was due to important changes in international development, former recipients of aid programmes becoming donors on their own (for example, many Latin American and Asian countries). This was mainly through South-South cooperation, allowing middle‐income and developing countries to share ‘knowledge, skills, expertise and resources to meet their development goals through concerted efforts’ (UNOSSC).

The EU aid effectiveness journey included new policy instruments such as the use budget support, a policy instrument aimed to help beneficiary countries to directly finance their national development agendas. Thus, the EU aimed to start building international partnerships with these developing countries. Yet, going beyond these initial approaches, the EU manifested more recently its interest in incorporating horizontal cooperation in its own policies and programmes. This has happened in two main ways. First, this ambition was stated in key EU documents. For example, in its last European Consensus on Development (2017), the EU highlights the desire to build ‘innovative engagement with more advanced developing countries’ and ‘partnerships [which] will promote the exchange of best practices, technical assistance and knowledge sharing [… by working] with these countries to promote South-South and triangular cooperation consistent with development effectiveness principles’. Triangular cooperation, as defined by UNOSSC, ‘involves two or more developing countries in collaboration with a third party, typically a developed-country government or multilateral organization, contributing to the exchanges with its own knowledge and resources’. It offers the opportunity for actors such as the EU to get involved in horizontal cooperation, by partially financing programmes in which countries in the Global South exchange experiences on development lessons, challenges and successes. The second and more recent way in which the EU has showed its interest in incorporating horizontal cooperation between its institutional practices is by starting to finance concrete triangular cooperation programmes such as a regional facility for development in transition for Latin America and the Caribbean, building on best practices taken mainly from Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Costa Rica and Argentina.

These EU attempts to adapt and start using institutional practices which have proved successful in programmes developed by new donors is a complex process in itself. It is complex because it still involves contradictions, and the EU is working in triangular settings based on the idea of horizontality between international actors, but at the same time many of the EU partners still complain about EU conditionality in their bilateral relation. Complexity and adaptability in the EU system are interconnected, and, while we can indeed talk about the EU as an adaptive actor, the complexity of its adaptation processes is a key feature of the EU learning journey. This enables and constrains changes within the EU institutional practices. However, the complexity of the EU as an adaptive actor should not prevent analysts and scholars from approaching this instance of EU actorness that is as relevant as the EU attempts to diffuse its own values and practices.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article “The European Union: From a Complex Adaptive System to a Policy Interpreter



Ileana Daniela Serban was a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Political Science at Waseda University, Tokyo, where she held a research grant from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. She is currently a Lecturer in Public Policy at King’s College, London. Her research interests include global governance, processes of policymaking, EU actorness and new forms of international development cooperation.