Nakedly Normative Politics – Exposing EU Studies


by Dr Maxine David (Leiden University), Professor Roberta Guerrina (University of Bristol), and Dr Katharine A.M. Wright (Newcastle University)

When we were first asked to contribute a piece to the symposium on planetary politics, we were conscious of wanting to move the discussion on from “gendering normative power”, all too often understood as applying a gender sensitive lens to an existing framework. Ian Manners’ challenge to us was to think creatively about the possibilities offered by bringing together a critical feminist approach and planetary politics.

Our collaboration started in 2020 and took place online during the height of the pandemic, which made our concerns about planetary politics feel particularly acute. It is a project that has pushed each of us to the edge of our comfort zone, including through the symposium workshops where we benefited from the critique and ideas of our fellow contributors, Ian Manners, Michelle Pace and Kalypos Nicolaides, as well as being inspired by their work in turn.

We had a clear delineation of tasks to begin but, as with the best collaborative efforts, the lines dividing us were quickly blurred through provocative conversations where we challenged each other’s presumptions and assumptions and sought clarification on what we really meant. We each come from closely cognate disciplines or sub-disciplines, Feminist Security Studies, Feminist EU Studies, Foreign Policy analysis but are all as eclectic in our readings and inspirations as each of our area of studies demands. We are all, as well, willing to seize on new bodies of knowledge and ideas and share a willingness to be challenged and to challenge. These characteristics were a fundamental part of this collaborative exercise, the article taken as an opportunity to push each other to embrace discomfort as part of the process of knowledge production.

It was a satisfyingly collective endeavour. We read Chiang and talked about it. We watched the film and argued about that. We had long (and sometimes fruitless) discussions on tangentially related issues, including quantum physics. It felt like what scholarship should be like – but so often isn’t in the face of disciplinary and institutional pressures. Fittingly, considering what we ultimately argue, this was a rebellion of sorts, a space we could claim as our own for our own purposes, to ask the bigger questions about planetary politics. It is also, we acknowledge, a privilege and something we were able to indulge in because of the stage (and places) we are at career wise. It made us consider what questions ‘we’ – European Studies – aren’t always able to ask, what insights we are missing, as a result of the current system of knowledge production.

Our approach in this article challenges the linearity inherent to ideas of a progressive politics, arguing instead that a feminist (re) imagining of planetary politics entails coming to terms with an open-ended, reflexive and non-linear engagement with feminism itself. Encoding the feminist pluriverse therefore entails decolonising the feminist imaginary, in order to reclaim power from its association with domination, subjugation and hierarchies. This process allows us to understand the feminist ethic as the power to define futurities, power in collaboration with those (legitimately) defined as subaltern, and the power to consider those who are simply absent from our considerations. In so doing, the article challenges the anthropocentrism embedded in the idea of progress.

The EU as a gender actor is a prime example of this. Calls for the EU to be, or become, a “Feminist Power” are driven by a linear notion of progress that started with the inclusion of Art 119 in the Treaties of Rome. By foregrounding the circular nature of the political, our article exposes how the EU is becoming the kind of feminist power it was always envisaged to be, in so far as it was encoded into the political vision of the Union. This is not to say, however, that this is the type of feminist power the EU could be, if there was a reimagining of what the EU is or should be.

Our article challenges, therefore, the very idea of a Feminist Foreign Policy on the basis that it is insufficiently disruptive. Its focus on individual empowerment, formal equality and rights are reflective of a neoliberal vision. The inclusion of feminist norms within the neoliberal structures is intended to exploit their value to reproduce dominant social and economic hierarchies, rather than to open a space for a feminist pluriverse. Our Four ‘Es’ – ethic of care, empathy, emancipation and equity – are a call to disrupt the hierarchies that underpin the structure, they are the prerequisites for transformative change. In ongoing calls for the EU to develop a Feminist Foreign Policy, we caution against the reproduction of those systems and hierarchies that are, yes, normative, but not grounded in a feminist ethic of emancipation.

The article will serve, we hope, as a spur to long-established, as well as more nascent research agendas. In the past few years, for instance, relationality has occupied the thinking of more and more academics, whether in theorising about ontology, or about a relational revolution, or more empirically by examining relations between different actors in a sub-regional space. With planetary politics and the normative power approach as starting points for our own thinking, we come implicitly to the same types of considerations that underpin this relational turn in International Relations. Our Four Es function as a toolkit for how we can deliver research that rejects anthropocentrism and helps us achieve the embrace of the planet and the full plurality of relations that exist upon it.

This blog is part of a series considering the normative power approach to the European Union and applying this more widely to planetary politics. The introduction to this series can be found here.

Dr Maxine David is a Lecturer in European Politics at Leiden University. She is a foreign policy analyst. David’s work can be followed on Linkedin.

Professor Roberta Guerrina is Professor of Politics and Director of the Gender Research Centre at University of Bristol. Her current research focuses on the gender politics of EU external affairs and organisational approaches to EDI. Guerrina’s work can be followed on Linkedin.

Dr Katharine A. M. Wright is Senior Lecturer in International Politics and co-convener of the Military War Security Research Group at Newcastle University (UK). Her research concerns gender and security, including the implementation of the UN Women, Peace and Security agenda by NATO and the EU. Wright’s work can be followed on Linkedin.