EU Plays Soft Empire Games With Global Child Rights by Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya

Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya presents international “standards-setting” as a tactic by the European Union (EU) for exerting influence around the world. He argues that child welfare measures and best practices are an important tool in the EU’s exercise of “soft” empire. Dr.  Bhattacharyya cautions that we in India should not blindly adopt the EU’s universalizing measures in child policy as research is showing that they have resulted in discrimination against immigrants, marginalized communities and ethnic minorities. A version of this article was published on 4 November 2017 in The Sunday Guardian with the heading EU’s child-welfare rules and Europe’s ‘soft empire’ games   as part of our on-going series in collaboration with them called ‘Global Child Rights And Wrongs’.


The European Union (EU) presents itself as an empire with a difference; whose authority is based not on force or

realpolitik, but on the desire of member-states to belong to the EU, as if the EU were an attractive and exclusive “club”.

EU: ‘Non-imperial’ Empire?

But it has been argued that the structure

and institutional framework of the EU is

more akin to an imperial polity resembling

that of a neo-medieval European empire

(Jan Zielonka, 2006, ‘Europe as Empire:

The Nature of the Enlarged European



The most striking manifestation of this

imperial diktat style was the insistence of

large EU member states like Germany to

approve budgets of the smaller ‘errant’

states like Greece and imposition of

austerity programs.


During an interactive parliamentary

session, the then President of the

European Commission, Jose Manuel

Barosso, let the cat out of the bag when he

spoke of the EU for the ‘ordinary people’ as

‘the organisation of empires’ and ‘the first

non-imperial empire’ functioning without

any centralized force or sovereign



How does the EU exercise authority? One of its powerful weapons is ‘Regulations’ or ‘Standards-Setting’, which it uses

not just to wield power over member states, but to extend its tentacles much beyond its geographical borders. Child

welfare and family practices assume top priority, along with environmental norms, in these ‘soft empire’ games of the



This is evident from Article3(3) of the Lisbon Treaty which introduced as an objective for the EU a model for child rights

that was directly adopted from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU appointed a Child Rights Coordinator as part of the Directorate-General of Justice and

set up specific EU funding programs for promotion of best practices and methods. An elaborate institutional network

has been established with NGOs, activists and child care practitioners whose job is to actively convince and propagate in

EU member states and the wider world the EU’s vision of what the best and optimal child care model should be.


Nordic states play an important role in this imperial game. The Nordic welfare state model is touted as the perfect model

both within and outside the EU. It is widely considered to be the ideal towards which the EU aspires. EU thinkers such as

Professor Karl Ove Moene describe the ‘Nordic experience’ as ‘a society model” (2011 CASE Policy Research Seminar

lecture on ‘Nordic Experience’).


Hence, it should not be any surprise for us that the EU in concert with the Nordic states and UN agencies would attempt

to actively promote these child welfare practices and measures in countries like India. We already have an example of

this in the disproportionate influence exercised by the UNICEF on Indian child welfare policies. Regarding child rights

under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has declared that “The Commission is guided by the principles set out in the UN

Convention on the Rights of the Child.” In this way UN agencies often act in tandem with the EU in using standards-

setting as a means of exercising international influence.


The concept of EU as a ‘Regulatory Empire’ was developed by Raffaella Sarto in 2006 in his analysis of ‘EU empire-ness’

in the context of whale-bans proposed by Nordic countries. In a later work, ‘Normative Empire Europe: The European

Union, its Borderlands, and the ‘Arab Spring’ (2015), Sarto explored the theoretical concept of a ‘Normative Power

Europe’, where the EU is actively engaged in the export of universal norms and regulations as part of its exercise of

international relations.


The EU as a Regulatory Empire involves the export of rules and practices, and stressing of their universal validity, and

‘civilizing’ aspect. This is accompanied with propaganda of being a sort of ‘holier-than-thou’ society, with the highest

ideals of humanity and progressive thinking in the world.


During my Brussels days as a student while attending seminars or interacting socially with EU Commission

functionaries, European Parliamentarians, NGOs or anyone connected with the labyrinth of the EU, they made clear

their belief that the EU was the most comfortable and congenial zone compared with the rest of the world.


The ugly side of this “knight in shining amour” syndrome showed itself in the faux pas of a promotional video for the EU.

The video showed a dramatized choreography in which the rising powers of BRICS were portrayed as ugly, threatening

and lusty men laying siege on an innocent white European woman representing the EU. That said it all. Though the video

was withdrawn, it revealed the message that the EU wanted to send out: that the wider world is nasty, predatory and

bereft of values, and the EU and its institutions are here to protect you.


But we in India have to be cautious before adopting norms and standards as proposed by the EU and the international

community in general. Studies have shown that immigrants in welfare states such as Norway, whose child protection

measures are held up as an ideal by the EU, are disproportionately targeted by their child welfare services.


In their book ‘Immigration Policy and the Scandinavian Welfare State’, Anniken Hagelund and Grete Bochmann have

described the relationship between immigrants and the welfare state as being one of tension and discomfiture.  Katrin

Kriz and Marit Skivenes, in their research paper funded by the Norwegian Research Council, titled ‘Challenges for

marginalized minority parents in different welfare systems: child welfare workers’ perspectives’ published in the

International Social Work Journal (2012), conducted a cross-country empirical study of the challenges faced by

marginalized racial and ethnic minority families from different welfare agencies in England, Norway and the United

States. The study clearly indicated a certain oblivion towards the possible challenges faced by migrant families,

especially those of colour, in a predominantly ‘White’ society with different cultural values and ethos.


Intriguingly, this was more acute in Norway than the other countries included in the study, where the social workers in

child welfare acknowledged the difficulties of belonging to a different race and culture. Norwegian child-care workers

expressed little sympathy for the difficulties being faced by migrant families and their children.  The Norwegian child

welfare system has the ideology of ‘universalizing’ its society, where in the name of fairness and equality, emphasis is

placed on the criteria of ‘sameness’ in growing up and child rearing. This rules out any acknowledgement of a childhood

experience based on another culture. In this way of thinking, cultural differences are something to be frowned upon, are

seen as a disruption of the duties of the welfare-agency, and not as something to be celebrated.


The homogenizing and standardizing agenda of the EU, Nordic states and UN agencies, no matter how “soft” an empire,

is fraught with risk for India. Here we are not espousing the proverbial ‘foreign hand’ paranoia, and nor we are closed to

adopting any best practices in child welfare and family services from the Europe. We are merely urging that India be

mindful of the divisive and alienating effects of these child welfare policies and practices. They have failed to even

account for Europe’s own limited (compared with India) demographic diversity. For a country of our ethnic, cultural and

religious diversity there are important lessons to be learnt from the discrimination against immigrants, marginalized

communities and ethnic minorities under the universalizing EU-Nordic welfare state model.


Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London. He is an entrepreneur and commentator on Indo-European affairs.