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.