Saturday, June 1, 2013

Theorizing EU Integration

          The role and purpose of theory in studying European integration is to gain a better understanding of the functions and role of the European Union. Theory can provide insights into the “telos of European integration” and the workings of the European Union (Wallace et al., Ch.2, 42). According to Wallace et al., theory can greatly increase our understanding “of EU policy-making, of the respective roles and influence of the Commission, Council, Parliament, and Court,” as well as the “increasingly relationship between EU institutions and their national and sub-national interlocutors” (Wallace et al., Ch. 2, 34). Furthermore, theories are good analytical tools that can be used to explain and chart variation in European Union policy-making over time and across issue areas (Wallace et al., Ch. 2, 16).

Though theory can be useful, in regards to European integration, it has also been a difficult, and contested, enterprise. This is largely due to the fact that the European Union is unique compared to other governing systems in the world. The European Union is in many ways unidentifiable, “in that it escapes labels, such as nation, state, empire, region, federation, which form the conventional toolkit of political science” (Hooghe & Marks, 108). Furthermore, Hooghe & Marks note that European integration challenges the political science division between politics among countries and politics within countries (108). In addition to the challenges it creates to standing political science understanding, the institutional change within the European Union moves very quickly (Hooghe & Marks, 108). For example, “over the space of 50 years, the EU has increased two-and-a-half times in population, from 190 million to 493 million” (Hooghe & Marks, 108-109). Thus, the European Union is distinct in regime creation, in its speed and scope (Hooghe & Marks, 109).

Given the current crisis, each major body of theory would predict (or suggest) something different for Europe and the integration project. According to Neo-functionalism, the spillover effect of integration in one policy area (such as monetary policy) would lead to further integration in another related policy area (such as fiscal policy); thus, the current crisis would lead to further integration (Wallace et al., Ch. 2, 18).  According to Intergovernmentalism, Europe and the integration project would take a step back; with focus being placed more on the nation-states than the Community (Wallace et al., 19). This is because, for intergovernmentalism, “national governments control policy outcomes” (Hooghe & Marks, 113). According to Liberal Intergovernmentalism, national governments will bargain more with each other to deal with the crisis, leading to further integration (Wallace et al., 19-20). For New Institutionalism, “EU institutions ‘matter’, shaping both the policy process and policy outcomes in predictable ways,” thus, according to this theory, institutions will continue to shape European integration during the current crisis (Wallace et al., Ch. 2, 23). Lastly, for Constructivism, the social environment plays a key role and will shape the behavior of states and the EU in dealing with the current crisis (Wallace et al., Ch. 2, 24-25).

The implication of the European Union’s actions in response to the crisis so far for the major theories of European integration varies. I think for Neo-functionalists, the European Union’s actions signal further integration with “bailouts” given to member states and the discussion over a permanent “European Stability Mechanism.” I think for Intergovernmentalism, the recent actions by the European Union goes against this theory, as integration and the EU have taken steps to deal with the crisis across many member states. However, I think recent steps demonstrate the applicability of Liberal Intergovernmentalism because of the response of the EU to the needs/preferences of the national governments of its member states. The creation of the European Rescue Fund and discussion over a permanent “European Stability Mechanism” also demonstrate the usefulness of New Institutionalism, as it appears that the EU is utilizing institutions in response to this crisis. Lastly, I think that the current crisis has created a social environment in which the EU has to respond and thus, Constructivism can be used to somewhat better understand EU action.


  1. Emily, your post does a good job in highlighting the ways in which each body of theory focuses on different explanatory factors as central in understanding European Integration, but also the ways in which some of these different bodies of theory overlap, or bump up against each other (even as others remain mutually exclusive and logically inconsistent with each other). While we know that at some broad level "all of these things matter" the key role of theory is to help us hone in on the things that matter more in explaining outcomes at different times and under different conditions.

    I think you are generally right in your assessment of the ways that we might understand the EU response to the current crisis. I'm curious, though, as to whether you (or others) can think of ways in which the intergovernmentalist perspective might shed light on what is going on, or might offer a different understanding than the (seemingly prevalent) neo-functionalist perspective?

  2. I think that the intergovernmentalist perspective does have some insights to offer in relation to the current crisis. As intergovernmentalism emphasizes the role of individual states, I think it might help account for the rise of some of the nationalist movements taking place in the EU - for example, in Greece. In fact, one might even argue that call for greater levels of autonomy and appeals to nationalism are, to some extent, a validation of intergovernmentalism. However, I may be stepping a bit beyond the bounds of the theory by focusing on domestic polities.

    In thinking about the theory from a state-centric point of view, intergovernmentalism can help explain the crisis in the sense that one might argue that state interests are currently misaligned. The most prominent of these examples might be the discrepancies in economic capabilities between Germany and Greece. As these states will have different priorities and goals in accordance with their economic situations, their individual interests may supersede those of the EU writ large and lead to conflict.

  3. In addition to what Grant has said, I think that an intergovernmentalist would argue that member states are the primary actors in the European integration process. From this perspective, a member state can actually be strengthened, rather than weakened by giving up some of their sovereignty to the European Union. This is because, in some policy areas, it could be considered in the state's best interest to pool sovereignty. Certainly, France and Germany have played a key role in furthering European integration because it was in their best interest to do so, particularly in terms of the economy.

    In terms of what is going on now, I think the interests of the member states are beginning to converge and as a result, integration is continuing through the creation of the European Rescue Fund, the sale of new "euro-bonds," and discussions over a permanent "European Stability Mechanism." All three of these things indicate further integration as a response to the current crisis and, according to the intergovernmentalist perspective, this integration is being pushed by member states.

  4. Good observations here! Intergovernmentalism most directly asks us to consider the capacities of different states as *states* on the international stage and interests that are derived from those capacities. In the most recent crisis we have once again seen the policy preferences of Germany and France at the heart of the EU response. We may well see a further institutionalization of particular policy areas (e.g. debt/finance), but one could argue that the specific shape that this new institutionalization will take may well reflect the interests and preferences of Germany, in particular, and France as well (even if the process is a contentious and drawn-out one).