The European Union

A Handbook on the European Union - Book index

In this first part we shed light on some of the main features of the European integration process and how these relate to the institutional order of the European Union.

The European Union is in many ways a unique political organisation. We may use particular areas of policy to describe its system, such as monetary policy to suggest that it is a federation, or foreign and security policy to argue that it is a confederation. While existing models of state can be useful in guiding our thinking, their rather fixed significations may also obfuscate some of the EU’s peculiarities. To suggest that the EU is a federation or a confederation can be a way of describing the distribution of authority between the national and the supranational levels, yet it can also provide for an erroneous perception of aspects of European policy that otherwise do not conform with such a narrative.

European integration is a process. When we try to use an existing model we commit the error of treating European integration as mostly static and largely complete, as already made. Whereas to perceive of it as a process means to consider it in a state of flux, as being in the making. We may describe the actual system of the EU in negative terms, as not being a typical federation, confederation, or international organisation. The venture becomes more complicated when attempting to positively define it, as to what it actually is. To this end, one should be mindful of the EU’s incompleteness, so that any claim on its actuality is provided with the proviso that it may not be entirely accurate.

It is common to refer to the EU as a polity sui generis, standing in a league of its own. While that may help us avoid the direct comparisons with existing political systems, it can imply that we do indeed know what this unique kind is: that we can, in other words, properly define it. The problem with definitions along those lines is that they try to provide for a uniform description of an otherwise heteroclite whole. Perhaps the safest generalisation one can make is that there are areas of European policy that can be understood as federal, others as confederal, others as intergovernmental. However these cannot be reduced to each other: an intergovernmental formation cannot also be a federation, a federated system differs from a confederation, and so on.

Still, the European Union is not fundamentally indeterminate. What we are arguing for is that the method used needs to account for its nature as becoming. To that end, we attempt to study the specifics, to discern commonalities in the multitude of phenomena for understanding this new form of polity. This is a positivist exercise, yet one which provides for a relatively higher degree of uncertainty in not offering a final judgement.