Politics of the European integration process

European integration is the process by which nation states in Europe proceed to harmonise their legal order through decisions adopted at the supranational level.

That is a sentence conveying a lot of information. We will spend the rest of this chapter analysing its parts:

  • “is a process”
  • “nation states in Europe”
  • “harmonise their legal order”
  • “decisions adopted at the supranational level”

The process

The European Union (EU) has not been created outright. What is now in place is the latest version of an ever-evolving set of legal-institutional arrangements. The first European Communities were founded in the 1950s. Their scope was limited to only a handful of policies, while their membership included six countries, namely, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.1

The first instance of integration was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).2 This was a regional cartel, established for the purpose of boosting trade between its member states in the two major industries of the time. The ECSC also provided for a common management of those industries, thus preventing any one government from using them for its own ends, as they had done during the two World Wars.

The predecessor of the EU is an organisation established in the late 1950s: the European Economic Community (EEC).3 From its very name we can infer a change in scope. The EEC was not supposed to focus on specific items of trade and/or industries thereof. Its purpose was to create a common market among its member states. To that end, the Community-level politics were focused on dismantling barriers to trade between the states, while establishing a common approach to customs and tariffs towards third countries.

With the establishment of the European Economic Community, the integration process shifts from a cartel to a regional trading block.

It took decades for the EEC to deliver on its objective. Its powers were limited. Member states had veto rights. Each could jeopardise any attempt at a common position. Eventually progress was achieved, oftentimes courtesy of important rulings from the European Court of Justice. National trade impediments were being abolished and the EEC seemed to be gaining momentum.

It can be argued that the EEC was a success in terms of what it sought out to achieve.4 The single market was instituted, while the way was paved for proceeding to the next phase of economic and political cooperation: monetary union.

The conception of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union coincided with the transition to an ever more ambitious project: the European Union. The EEC gave its place to the EU.5 Here too we witness a change in name that signifies a broadening of the organisation’s scope, even if tacitly so. The EU is not just about trade. It is an all-encompassing polity, a peculiar kind of constitutional order. Its ultimate telos, if only an implicit one, is to politically unify the European nations.

What is important to draw from this brief historical overview is the triptych of (i) consensus politics at the European level, (ii) the gradualism of the integration process, and (iii) the overall incompleteness of the polity. In particular:

  • Consensus. Integration proceeds in a stepwise fashion. No radical changes are made. Every instance of progress tends to be the end-product of broad agreements on several fronts, both among European institutions and national governments.
  • Gradualism. Major steps forward come in the form of Treaty law. The European Treaties are the Union’s primary legal corpus, its “constitution”. When they are amended, the European polity sets on a course of reform. The European Treaties are flexible enough to allow sufficient space for policy-makers to promote a common EU agenda through legislation. Seen from the perspective of a national government, EU secondary law is as semi-permanent as a constitution, since it can only be repealed or otherwise amended following widespread consensus at the European level.
  • Incompleteness. The EU, the latest iteration of the integration process, remains “in the making”. There are several areas of policy that still need to be harmonised, such as taxation or the pertinent issues of migration and asylum.

Nation states

The European Union is not a state in its own right. It derives its authority from its constitutive nation states. As is stipulated in Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union:6

[the European nation states] establish among themselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called “the Union”, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common.

The EU is an extension of its Member States’ collective will. National governments hold the view that through cooperation at the European level they can best promote their national interests and, perhaps inadvertently, contribute to the overall good of the Union. They see integration as a win-win situation.

The Union features several platforms for deliberations between the Member States. In fact, intergovernmental politics are central to the European project. There are two EU institutions in particular where national governments form their collective position on the specifics of European integration:

  • the European Council, which consists of the heads of state or government of the Member States;
  • the Council of the European Union, which comprises ministers from national governments and meets in various formations depending on the area of policy.

The role of the Member States is such that virtually no European policy can be forwarded without their involvement.

Rule harmonisation

Europe as a whole is a largely heterogeneous continent. There are many nations, cultures, languages. In terms of political organisation, these manifest as divergent constitutional traditions and historical path dependencies. What applies to one country may not hold true for its neighbours.

It is against this backdrop that European integration unfolds as a systematic effort to bring about a convergence of legal-institutional traditions and norms. For Europe to work, its laws need to have a system-wide consistency. The peculiarities of its constitutive nations are respected but must be balanced against the need to harmonise legislation.

Heterogeneity of this sort can offer an explanation as to why European politics are characterised by the aforementioned triptych:

  • Consensus is needed because no one nation’s constitutional identity can be considered superior to another’s.
  • Gradualism is necessary to allow sufficient time for convergence to be achieved, also at the level of formulating a common view on the best way forward.
  • The incompleteness of the EU reflects the very fact that at this stage in the process the nation state understood as sovereign remains relevant and, hence, authority between it and the EU is to be distributed in accordance with a series of agreements.

Decisions at the supranational level

The “supranational” or else the “European” is the level of decision-making above the nation state. In the context of the EU, it is often referred to as “Brussels”. What we describe with this is a couple of phenomena:

  • the actions of the EU institutions, typically in the form of the ordinary legislative procedure (standard law-making process) or preparatory work towards that end;
  • the congregation of national governments as European Council or Council of the EU and the policies adopted therefrom.

Five out of seven EU institutions have no direct connection to the national level. They are purely supranational entities that represent the interests of the Union at-large. Those namely are:

  1. European Commission, with one Commissioner (the political leadership) per Member State;7
  2. European Parliament, though its deputies—the Members of the European Parliament or MEPs—are elected in accordance with national lists, with whatever implications that may have on the representation of interests and their impact on policy (e.g. Germans can only vote for candidates running in Germany, French for those running in France, etc.);8
  3. European Central Bank, though its Governing Council consists of the governors of the national central banks plus the Executive Council (the latter is Member-State-independent);9
  4. Court of Justice of the EU, with the General Court consisting of one judge per Member State;10
  5. Court of Auditors, with one member per EU country.11

The remaining two EU institutions—European Council and Council of the EU—can be considered formalised intergovernmental formations. It is where the interests of the national governments are fully represented.

There are cases where national governments meet in ad hoc or quasi-formal arrangements, such as with the case of the Eurogroup which is made up of the Finance Ministers of the Member States whose currency is the euro. The Eurogroup is mentioned in a protocol to the European Treaties, but is not a proper formation of either the European Council or the Council of the EU. Its decisions are, strictly speaking, not legally binding. However since the very same ministers meet together with a few more of their colleagues at the Ecofin, the formal Council gathering for economic issues, the Eurogroup’s conclusions are eventually incorporated in the official EU agenda.

Future prospects of European integration

The key phrase that denotes the reform of the EU is “Treaty change”. With it the scope of the EU can be broadened. Given how recent crises have revealed certain shortcomings in the existing EU architecture, there are at least three areas of policy where future integration may focus:

  • EU-level fiscal policy, in the form of the capacity of the European level to raise taxes, issue debt instruments (“eurobonds”), and perhaps exercise some form of investment policy to balance out the effects of fiscal discipline enforced through Europe’s system of economic governance;
  • migration and asylum, which will consolidate whatever legislation will be introduced over the coming months, in particular as concerns border management and the distribution of asylum seekers, as well as allow the supranational level more power to enforce its decisions;
  • security and foreign policy, perhaps in the form of a proto-European army or else a “defence capacity”, a greatly empowered police and intelligence framework of cooperation between EU nations, and an outright European foreign policy that is not complementary to that of national governments.

As of now, this list is pure speculation based on ideas being floated around by various credible sources or officials. Under the current conditions, a Treaty reform does not seem likely, at least not before 2020.

If there is one thing to remember from all of the above, is that European integration is a process. Views that were taken for granted a few years back, such as fiscal policy being a near-sacrosanct national prerogative, have been profoundly reconsidered under the weight of the circumstances and the pressing need to adapt accordingly. Today it may seem far-fetched to suggest, for instance, that economic governance should be conducted by a European [economic] government. Over the medium term that may become the new normal.

What remains constant throughout European integration, is the ongoing development of the supranational level—now the EU—into a fully fledged polity.

  1. The history of the European Union. A valuable source of information by the official website of the EU. ^

  2. Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community. Overview of the Treaty. ^

  3. Treaty establishing the European Economic Community. Overview of the Treaty. ^

  4. Though there exists a single market, it still remains fragmented along national lines on the following: e-commerce, financial services, energy and transport, taxation, the recognition of vocational training. ^

  5. The European Union succeeded the European Economic Community in 1993. It was ushered in by the Treaty of Maastricht, which was signed in 1992. The euro, which is the centrepiece of the Economic and Monetary Union was introduced in 1999. ^

  6. About the European Commission. Overview by the official EU website. ^

  7. About the European Parliament. Overview by the official EU website. ^

  8. About the European Central Bank. Overview by the official EU website. ^

  9. About the Court of Justice. Overview by the official EU website. ^

  10. About the Court of Auditors. Overview by the official EU website. ^

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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