This contribution examines the driving factors behind the European Union's activism in global climate politics since the mid-1990s. Two alternatives are considered: norms and interests. Norms underlying the EU's stance include its belief in multilateralism, sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Interests comprise economic opportunities and the climate change–security nexus. It is argued here that the normative orientation has dominated the EU's ‘leading by example’ strategy in global negotiations. In Copenhagen, it yielded little influence as it was insufficiently geared towards the context of the negotiations. This challenges the notion of ‘normative power’ Europe and makes a review of the Union's external climate policy necessary.