On Why the EU Should Die. And be Resurrected

By Petr Manousek
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

To say the recent few years have not been the EU’s brightest would certainly be an understatement. There is so much eclecticism, topic deviation and “eurospeak” that one could forget what the EU really stands for. Just the list of its problems and imperfections could take days only to assemble. However, this article firmly states that the greatest present challenge is this: “The EU just won’t die.” And die it must, in order to then be resurrected in a more appropriate form.

To explain this rather harsh statement, one must first look at the current state of EU integration studies. Scholars have become too interested in every little “mystery” surrounding the organisation and then have entrenched themselves in their rigid explanations. What they have failed to acknowledge in the meantime is the overarching principle of the “return of the state” and the resulting simple yet tremendously important realisation: EU business is still done when there are 27 (ideally, but often much fewer) people sitting around a table, discussing the issue at hand. This might seem like a trivial observation but it appears to be a largely ignored one. Those who have, in a way, followed suit after EU scholars were EU leaders themselves. So much lip-service has been paid to the idea of “one voice for Europe”, that the traditional “getting to yes” culture of interstate diplomacy has been lost.

In short, the “art of consensus” in Europe (in the EU as well as in the scholarship) disappeared. At the same time, it is on the rise elsewhere. Both aforementioned groups ignore the fact that the world has been watching them closely and is eager to reproduce the positive results the European integration has indeed provided. Therefore, we can see a rising tide of integration projects in almost every corner of the world. What these lack in institutional structure (vis-à-vis the EU) they compensate for in resolve. Therefore, if the EU wants to survive, it must relearn its lost art of negotiation and rebalance its “united in diversity” motto towards emphasising unity and leaving diversity aside. In other words, it must die in its present form to be reborn in another, hopefully better one.

The objective here is not primarily to explain or prescribe, but rather to sketch the main points of a promising research agenda. To this goal, this article will broadly follow three paths. First, it will briefly argue for accepting the EU reality – state-centricity with important roles for non-state actors. The second part will claim that the most important aspect of the EU, stemming from state-centricity, is its negotiations. Effectively, states created and joined the EU for cooperation. However, now, there is a lack of cooperation, although it has existed at several points since the EU’s inception. The EU’s leaders should focus on recreating it. Third, this article will offer its version of where such a consensus – as seen elsewhere – should appear, as this is important for both EU scholars as well as EU leaders themselves to take into account.

The State of/in EU Integration Studies

The advent of new integration arrangements has recently challenged EU studies. The criticisms of it are diverse, interdisciplinary (from economists, psychologists and others) as well as introspective (due to its many different paradigms and theoretical standpoints). The sui-generis attitude to studying the EU has also been identified as insufficient and exclusive. The calls to change this are numerous.1

This article does not want to suggest that the study of International Relations should develop something like ‘string theory’ for the field now, however, it advocates a refocusing on what is really of importance – states. There is no denying the fact that, especially after the advent of financial crisis, states have been on the rise,2 at least politically if not so much economically. There is even a prominent group of scholars who would argue they have never really retreated.3 In the words of Delwaide: ‘States remain the most important – and thus far the only legitimate and legal – decision-makers in an international order which, notwithstanding all the international linkages and institution building, remains essentially ‘anarchic’’.5 What Delwaide means by anarchy does not equate to the usual association of “chaos” but rather the absence of authority, or something close to “freedom of the will”.

Naturally, there are problems with a state-centric approach. This article does not want to suggest that all theories focused away from states are essentially wrong. They simply describe different aspects of EU integration – such as the influence of non-state actors or the possible future development of the EU. These and other areas warrant further research but bearing in mind the fact that non-state actors are in any case connected to states – their legal system (regulations), representation structures, etc. Therefore, even if they definitely try to influence the politics made at the state level they always have to accept the risk of defeat and state’s ultimate right of decision and control over strategic issues. However, state and non-state actors are ‘entwined’.6 Moreover, we can speak about “symbiosis” or “synergy” between the two groups that allows advancing non-state actors’ causes when they resonate with national interests. This is best illustrated by Thorhallsson7 who argues that small states especially rely on this symbiotic relationship by concentrating on what is crucial for their interests. At the same time they can pledge support to what is important for non-state actors and not themselves. In EU scholarship, the knowledge on state and non-state actors should be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

The State of/in EU Negotiations

Having established that states are of paramount importance as the main players in the EU politics today, we should focus on what they actually do: negotiate. It may be hard to admit for some Realists but the sheer scale of cooperation within the EU is largely unexpected by their theory. At the same time, similar patterns have been appearing elsewhere, notably in South America.

‘Negotiations are both required to modify the EU’s institutional framework for decision-making and omnipresent in the Union’s day-to-day decisionmaking’ 8 and therefore they take place in many different settings and setups. However, which of them matter? Without hesitation everybody will select primarily both the European Council and the Council of the European Union, then the European Commission, and potentially the Court of Justice of the European Union. It is important to note that all are dominated by states – the first directly but the others indirectly: ‘EU member governments delegate to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice – but not to the European Parliament – for essentially the same transaction-cost reasons that motivate national legislators to delegate powers to … parliamentary committees … and courts’.9 What results is a natural need to negotiate: ‘decisions require extensive consultation involving private and public actors … and yet more discussions across the policy-making organs of the Union, and between Europe-level actors and member state representatives in the actual decisionmaking process’.10

The concept of delegation is important to sketch the research agenda revolving around negotiations. The EU institutions are populated by national representatives who at the same time also have their own agenda whose objective, as Pollack11 elaborates, is expansion of privileges.12 Therefore, their “loyalty” is torn and thus constitutes a special case unlike a “regular” international organisation.13 Small states especially then try to keep working relationships with EU officials as close as possible to advance their own goals.14

This leads into the most important factor in this section – people. The image of them negotiating at a table is a fitting one, be it in Brussels or elsewhere (as EU matters are discussed on many occasions, both formally and informally). Therefore, their state of mind and attitudes matter. A contemporary EU scholar might say that their identities matter. Although a prime minister would probably not risk an unfavourable outcome for their whole country just, for example, due to personal dislike of another participant, the attitudes leaders have naturally influence them.

What is most important, however, is why these people come to negotiations. At the end of the day, they are what they represent – states. Therefore, national interest is of paramount importance as the people who negotiate do so to advance certain goals, stemming from their national agendas, if only because that is what they were elected or appointed to do. In turn, this dynamic should be taken into account by EU scholars. Their research should ask what the national interest is for EU member states, how governments and citizens shape it, how flexible and susceptible to change it is and others.

Although this article does not want to offer its own solutions, it must acknowledge the biggest problem with the research it proposes. It is rooted in the oldest reality of all – uncertainty. As Booth and Wheeler see it: ‘Uncertainty is endemic in the condition of human existence because the leaders of groups cannot enter into each other’s minds’.15 Even scholars cannot know what concrete national interests are. Their challenge is a methodological one, effectively ‘inherent in studying negotiation behaviour: the secrecy surrounding the negotiations; the biases introduced by asking participants; and the difficulty of inferring from role plays to real-world negotiations’.16 A related problem is that – contrary to what, for example, rational choice scholars would argue – national interests may sometimes be non-negotiable or/and straightforwardly “irrational” for the outside observers. Nevertheless, they are there and uncertainty makes it difficult to discern their exact form and shape.

There is a lesson for leaders, too. Nowadays, there seems to be many diverging opinions on the EU and interests within it. Because of the essential uncertainty, leaders should acknowledge that sometimes “less is more” and concentrate on cooperating where there is visible confluence of national interests, rather than imposing it where there is clearly none. A long lasting minimal solution is better than a bombastic one that will warrant renegotiation in a few years’ time due to even initial lack of support. In short, they should focus on the basics on which general agreement lies.

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