Saturday, June 1, 2013

Topic #2 - theorizing EU integration

Although it can at times be tiring to constantly examine theories or models that initially appear to have little practical value, they can certainly be useful for their (however rudimentary) explanatory capabilities.  In addition, the process of developing new theories can often effectively alter one’s world view and allow for the examination of an issue from novel perspectives that yield new insights.
 Going off on a somewhat relevant tangent, in my final semester as an undergrad I had to read a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.  I thought the book served to prove the relevance of theory as it discussed the history of scientific discovery through a paradigmatic framework, arguing that progress is made through “revolutions” that allow for the replacement of old models of thought with new ones.  With that said, theorizing European integration has been difficult because the EU “escapes labels, such as nation, state, empire, region, [or] federation” and it “travels at great velocity” (Hooghe and Marks, 108) by quickly changing.
The four most influential theories of European integration are “neo-functionalism, intergovernmentalism, institutionalism, and constructivism.” (Pollack, 16.)   Although at times similar, each theory follows its own logic.  Neo-functionalists understood the development of the European Union as “developing by a process of ‘spillover’” (Pinder, 7) as governments expand, primarily through institutions, their control of one sector to another.  In the case of the Europe, this was seen in the evolution from the ECSC to the EU.  Neo-functionalists could have difficulty accounting for the economic crisis, but might suggest that it will force states to integrate even further to address the problem. 
On the other hand, adherents of intergovernmentalism argue that neofunctionalists “underestimated the resilience of the nation-state.” (Pollack, 19.)  They argue that nation-states are not becoming obsolete and contend that it is not supranational organizations but rather member state governments that have (and will continue to) determine the direction of the EU.  Liberal intergovernmentalism expands on these points by placing a certain degree of emphasis on institutions by essentially arguing that states form their preferences domestically and will use institutions when it serves their purposes. Intergovernmentalists might predict that the EU will fragment under the pressure of the current economic troubles.
The institutionalism school of thought unsurprisingly focuses on the importance of institutions in European integration.  There are three main types of institutionalism.  The first, rational-choice institutionalism, focuses on how states work for their own self-interests and how they decide to use and are affected by institutions.  Second, sociological institutionalism accounts for the role that norms, rules, and conventions play for states.  Finally, historical institutionalism “focuses on the effects of institutions over time” (Pollack, 22) and how institutions affect those who established them.  Institutionalists might argue that so long as the crucial institutions of the EU remain in place, the crisis will have limited effects.
The fourth broad theory is constructivism.  Constructivists emphasize the role of norms and identities in their understanding of EU integration.  They would likely argue that the EU will not be threatened by the economic crisis as long as member states understand their identities to be tied to the EU.
In terms of the four listed theories, I think that EU actions in response to the crisis have served to both demonstrate the EU’s capability to act but also its potential limitations.  It will be interesting to see if indeed a new theory will be needed to understand the EU.  In addition, I think that the relative strength of some states, particularly Germany, pose interesting questions. Hooghe and Marks argue that “European integration is one outcome of a broader process of authority dispersion,” (Hooghe and Marks, 114).  However, it will be interesting to see if the current crisis lends itself to a more (albeit perhaps informal) hierarchical approach within the EU. 


  1. A good summary of the main bodies of theory on European integration here, Grant. The durability or "stickiness" of institutions will certainly remain a factor as the EU negotiates the current crisis, as will the role and interests of certain member states (especially Germany). With this in mind, what body of theory would most directly help us explain the current discussions in the EU of expanding the Union's competencies into areas of fiscal governance and budgetary matters of the member states?

    1. Of the four primary theories in the readings, I think that neo-fuctionalism can most directly help to explain current discussions about expanding the EU's competencies into domestic economics. A neo-functionalist would describe this process as another example of a "spillover," as the EU (a supranational governing body) has seen its control of various sectors expand since its inception. Neo-functionalists might argue that the involvement of the EU in areas of fiscal governance and budgetary matters of member states is simply the most recent incarnation of a long series of EU adaptations. I think that this is a good explanation and provides a solid framework for further analysis.

    2. Grant - I would agree with you. I also believe that neo-functionalism is a good theory that could be used to explain the response of the EU and the current discussion about expanding the role of the EU over the economy. However, I think that institutionalism is also applicable, particularly historical institutionalism. The short history of the EU has included the adoption of many treaties that have formed and strengthened several institutions within the EU. For example, the Parliament was given more legislative power through the Lisbon Treaty. I think this has created a form of "path dependency" that will be very difficult to go back on. As a result, it is logical, according to this theory, that the EU as an institution, in and of itself, will only be furthered strengthened in this time of crisis, as that has been the typical response in the past.

    3. Good comments and observations all around here -- nice work Grant and Emily!