Norms, security, and domestic interests
: explaining variation in the robustness of EU crisis responses

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis seeks to account for variation in the robustness of EU crisis responses, assessing why the Union took robust action in some cases, while responding only in a weak manner in others. The thesis carries out a comparative assessment of the explanations for variation in robustness suggested by three of the main theoretical approaches in International Relations: realism, in the form of structural realism; liberalism, in the form of liberal intergovernmentalism; and constructivism, in the form of sociological institutionalism. Structural realism argues that the most powerful member states’ security concerns determine the robustness of EU responses, and that the most powerful states can shape responses in ways that go against the preferences of other member states. Liberal intergovernmentalism argues that the domestic interests of the most powerful member states are the key variable shaping the robustness of EU responses, and that because each member state has a veto, the Union’s responses cannot go beyond the lowest common denominator of what all member states are willing to accept. Sociological institutionalism contends that the robustness of EU responses is extensively shaped by the Union’s norms, such as respect for human rights and international law, and that member states converge on common responses. The empirical analysis tests hypotheses derived from the theories in three case studies of recent EU crisis responses: to the migration crisis, to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine,and to the conflict in Libya. No single theory can fully account for variation in the robustness of EU responses. Instead, each theory guides our attention towards one of the causes of variation: the security concerns of the most powerful member states, their domestic interests, and EU norms. Variation in robustness depended on the context-specific intensity and interaction of the three variables. The more each of the three pointed towards a robust response, the likelier that the EU would respond robustly to a crisis. The thesis adds to our understanding of the EU’s responses to three ongoing crises on which there is relatively limited existing scholarship. It contributes to the study of EU foreign policy by providing a theoretically driven empirical account of the causes of variation in the robustness of the Union’s responses. More broadly, it adds to the debate on the role of the most powerful member states, institutional actors, and other member states in shaping EU foreign policy. Finally, it also feeds into wider debates in International Relations on the respective influence of security concerns, domestic interests, and norms on foreign policy.
Date of Award1 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAnand Menon (Supervisor) & Benjamin Kienzle (Supervisor)

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