European Union 101: Norms in Europe and Beyond


Europe rose from the ashes following the disaster of World War II (WWII), and it is now one of the most important players in international affairs. This 101 series examines the development of the European Union from its beginnings and will shed light on the way in which it functions and exercises influence on the global stage. The series consists of five chapters, each dealing with a crucial component of the European Union which consequently facilitates our understanding of this unique actor:

1. European Union 101: Historical Development

2. European Union 101: What is the EU?

3. European Union 101: EU Institutions

4. European Union 101: Norms in Europe and Beyond

5. European Union 101: Environmental Governance

Ever since the European Union (EU) began to materialize in the 1950s as a peace project, it has had a firm focus on certain norms, in addition to economic growth. From its very beginning, the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, has emphasised better living standards and a higher quality of life as central goals to be attained by its members (EUR-Lex, 2017). With time, norms and standards evolved and expanded to different areas, and the EU has taken a leading role in their promotion on the international level. This article begins by outlining some of the main EU values and how they relate to the day-to-day functioning of the EU and its long-term strategy. Next, the focus will shift to the way in which the EU promotes its norms on the international level. The article will conclude by highlighting the importance and relevance of EU standards in contemporary times.

Waters, G. (2015). Creating a European Agenda [Illustration]. Ikon Images.

The EU has incorporated several norms in its founding treaties: the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) (European Union, 2007) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) (European Union, 2007). Most notably, they enshrine the principles of democracy, rule of law, human rights, and rights of minorities. These norms are the foundation of the EU, and all member states have to respect them and guarantee their protection. Under Article 2 of the TEU, “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities" (European Union, 2007). In practice, the countries that wish to join the EU have to fulfil certain criteria before acceding to it, the first being to respect the aforementioned values in Article 2. European states that do not respect these norms cannot be considered for EU membership. In this way, the EU ensures a level of uniformity and coherence across members. In other words, the fundamental principles of the EU lay at the core of its enlargement policy. Furthermore, the EU institutions are tasked with ensuring that the provision of the treaties and the norms enshrined therein are upheld and respected. For example, under article 7 of the TEU, the European Council is responsible for identifying if any of the EU member states are breaching the fundamental values of the Union. It is worth noting that the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the EU are also important players in this procedure.

Sustainable development is a more recently introduced yet crucial norm of the EU, found in Article 3 of the TEU. While there are several possible explanations of sustainable development, one of the most widely agreed definitions refers to development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (European Commission, 2022). The EU has acknowledged the close link between democracy and development, and it considers democratic societies with well-functioning institutions as prerequisites for sustainable development (Zamfir & Dobreva, 2019). Within the EU, the efforts to support sustainable development have increased significantly over the last decades. A notable step forward is sealed in Article 11 of the TFEU, stating that environmental concerns should be incorporated in all activities and policies of the EU. In effect, this provision ensures that the measures adopted by the EU in all areas take into consideration environmental consequences. Article 11 has been frequently invoked by the European Court of Justice in order to annul or change certain EU decisions that were harming the environment and did not contribute to sustainable development (see, for example, Case T-229/04, Sweden v. Commission).

Hobbit. (n.d.). EU [Illustration]. Shutterstock.

The values and norms are heavily present within the EU, but they can also be noticed in the relations that the EU establishes with other states. On the global stage, the EU introduces its core values into the international agreements it concludes with other states or organizations. For example, the EU – Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (European Commission, 2022) includes provisions to promote respect for democracy, even though the subject matter of the international agreement is trade. The EU is consistently pushing for the inclusion of democracy and human rights provisions in the agreements it negotiates and concludes. Furthermore, the EU aims to take a proactive stance in promoting these values, as demonstrated by the recently launched Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy programme, worth €1.5 billion (European Commission, 2021). Through this programme, the EU attempts to intensify its efforts to promote and protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Similarly, the promotion of democracy in third countries is substantiated through several means, such as electoral assistance. To illustrate, the EU has provided substantial funding to countries transitioning to democratic systems: for example, it has covered more than half of the total cost of the elections held in Somalia in 2016 (European Union Election Expert Mission to Somalia, 2017).

Given the centrality and urgency of the climate change crisis on the international stage, the promotion of sustainable development is a priority for most states, which is noticeable in numerous agreements. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2022) may be the most relevant instrument for the present decade, which provides a clear direction for all actors, including the EU. One of the most important ways in which the EU gives effect to sustainable development in its relations with other states and organizations is through trade agreements. The EU’s trade policy, in fact, has increasingly focused on different aspects of sustainable development, such as sustainable fishing or sustainable use of natural resources (European Commission, 2022). Concretely, the EU has trade agreements with rules on sustainable development with over 15 actors, including Japan, Canada, Mercosur, and Central American states.

The relevance of the norms stems from the tumultuous history of Europe, being destroyed by two World Wars and then divided by the Cold War. In particular, the divisions between communist states associated with the USSR and the democratic states associated with the US prevented some countries (Austria, Sweden, Finland) from joining the EU, as they maintained a neutral attitude during the Cold War. After the end of the war, most former communist states in Europe applied for EU membership. Nonetheless, before they could be accepted, they had to create stable institutions that could guarantee a democratic system. In a rapidly changing geopolitical context, upholding democracy, human rights, and the rule of law may now be more important than ever, within and outside the EU. The protests in Poland, Hungary, and Belarus related to these values (Dempsey, 2022) prove once again their relevance in contemporary times and how important it is to promote them. The struggle for democracies and human rights persists, even in the 21st century, and the EU has elaborated ambitious initiatives in this vein.


  • Case T-229/04, Sweden v. Commission [2007] ECR II-2437

  • Dempsey, J. (2020). Judy Asks: Can Europe Save Democracy in Hungary and Poland? Carnegie Europe. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from:

  • EUR-Lex - xy0022 - EN - EUR-Lex. (2017). EUR-Lex. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from

  • European Commission. (2021). Press corner. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from

  • European Commission. (2022a). CETA chapter by chapter. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from

  • European Commission. (2022b). Sustainable development - Trade - European Commission. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from

  • European Union, Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, 13 December 2007

  • European Union, Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, 13 December 2007

  • European Union Election Expert Mission to Somalia. (2017). Somalia 2016–2017 Limited Election Process. EU Election Expert Mission. Final Report.

  • United Nations. (2022). THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from

  • Zamfir, I., & Dobreva, A. (2019). EU support for democracy and peace in the world. European Parliamentary Research Service.

Image sources:

  • Hobbit. (n.d.). EU [Illustration]. Shutterstock.

  • Waters, G. (2015). Creating a European Agenda [Illustration]. Ikon Images.

Author Photo

Gilda Liana Mazilu

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