Why the EU conflicts more with some international organizations than others

As a relevant actor in the search for multilateralism, the EU has growing relationships with most international governmental organizations. But quantity doesn’t always mean quality, and there are reasons for that.

Angel Saz-Carranza
Marie Vandendriessche
Núria Agell

Relationships between intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and the European Union (EU) have expanded significantly in recent years. As policies increasingly overlap and the EU’s involvement in global governance grows, joint activities and agreements — both formal and informal — have become increasingly commonplace

But with an increase in agreements also comes an increase in disagreements. The growth of interactions and the mutual influence of IGOs and the EU can lead to differing views on policy and governance, culture clashes between domestic and international players, competition for resources, and power imbalances. The result can be an increasing level of conflict that detracts from the organizational objectives

So, what determines the quality of interactions between the EU and IGOs? What factors affect the levels of trust and conflict between the two? What shapes the level of cooperation within these symbiotic relationships? 

To find out, Esade’s Angel Saz-Carranza, Marie Vandendriessche, Jenn Nguyen and Núria Agell conducted a large-scale data analysis of interactions between the EU and 36 formal IGOs between 1998 and 2017. Their research, published in the European Journal of Integration, analyzed over 30,000 events available on the Global Data Event Language and Tone (GDELT) database — an open-research platform that monitors the world’s media and provides a detailed record of global activities and sentiments. 

The growth of interaction 

In recent decades, the EU has become increasingly engaged with international organizations in its pursuit of multilateralism. And, as the number of relationships increases, interactions follow suit. This creates a significant amount of institutional overlap. 

Global IGO giants the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), United Nations (UN) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the organizations with which the EU shares most interactions — in the case of NATO, by a significant margin. But when it comes to the positivity of the relationships, quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality.  

NATO, UN and IMF are the intergovernmental organizations the EU interacts with the most

The factors that do play a part in determining the level of conflict are the amount of policy overlap, whether the EU is a member of the IGO (either in an observatory or full capacity), and the level of the authority of the IGO. 

The role of policy overlap in relations 

The research results of Saz-Carranza, Vandendriessche, Nguyen and Agell revealed that higher levels of policy overlap lead to a drop in the level of cooperation within the relationship. 

Where levels of policy overlap are high – for example, between the EU and the World Health Organization (WHO) – more conflicting interactions exist. IGOs with low policy overlap with the EU, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), have a more cooperative relationship. 

Higher levels of policy overlap lead to a drop in the level of cooperation

These results support previous research findings that overlapping competences can lead to competition and conflict

Close relationships create more conflict 

On balance, the literature reviewed by the researchers for the study suggested that formal membership of an IGO by the EU – as an observer or full member – was of less relevance when it came to the EU’s political performance or relevance in an IGO than other factors, such as the de facto capacity of the EU to act. The results from the analysis of interactions, however, paint a different picture. 

In IGOs where the EU has no membership status, the level of cooperation is high. But when the EU is an observer or a full member of the IGO, the degree of conflict in its relations with that IGO increases.  

When the EU is a member of the organization, the degree of conflict in its relations increases

These results are illustrated by examples from The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Each has a similar number of interactions with the EU. However, interactions with the WTO, of which the EU is a full member, are conflicting overall, while those with ECOWAS (no EU membership) are cooperative.  

This may suggest that the EU is a member of the organizations that matter most to it. In turn, this leads to higher levels of negotiation and the potential for conflict. 

The weak impact of authority 

In accordance with previous findings, Saz-Carranza, Vandendriessche, Nguyen and Agell expected the level of authority exercised by an IGO to have an impact on the number of interactions with the EU.  

More authority, the logic suggests, leads to more scrutiny and higher standards that will influence the quantity and level of cooperation within the relationship. In other words, we could expect that authority implies a greater number of instances where conflict may occur. 

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the researchers found that the level of authority of an IGO plays a minimal part in the number of interactions. In any case, it does have a weak impact on the type of interaction; but, contrary to expectations, the more the IGO’s power is delegated, the higher the levels of its cooperation with the EU.  

This is exemplified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has high authority (i.e. autonomous decision capacity) and has relatively positive interactions with the EU. On the other hand, NATO — which has low authority, since it depends on the decisions of its members — has a conflictual relationship with the EU. 

Future research on policy overlap 

The authors suggest that further research is required into how the policy fields in which an IGO is active in seems to play a role in the quality of the relationship. 

More broadly, they conclude, an in-depth exploration of the relationship between policy overlap, cooperation and conflict could define the conditions under which policy overlap leads to conflict or cooperation. 

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