Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Sum and Its Parts: The European Union and its Member States

by Dr. Tim Haughton

August is perhaps the best month to reflect on European integration. True, there are the inevitable crises to deal with which tend to disrupt the holiday plans of foreign ministers and external relations personnel, but many of the Brussels-based bureaucrats have swapped their offices around Rond-point Schuman for warmer and sunnier climes, and many academics can finally get round to reading some of the books on the must-read pile.  

Too much scholarship on the European Union has become technical, detailed and circumscribed by disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. These articles and books are worthy, but frequently inaccessible and increasingly divorced from the big questions which bring the majority of us into the field in the first place: ‘who or what drives integration?’ and ‘where does power lie in the European Union?’     

Christopher Bickerton’s European Integration: From Nation-State to Member State (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a bold attempt to contribute answers to these two big questions. Bickerton asserts that the EU is not ‘merely the sedimentation of inter-state bargains’ nor is there an ‘emerging pan-European superstate or integrated political systems at the EU level’ (p. 15). At the core of his monograph is the assertion that European integration is a ‘state-driven and state-based process’, but that these states are ‘fundamentally different from the traditional, egotistical, bourgeois nineteenth-century nation states that still inhabit the imagination of political scientists and citizens alike’ (p. 4). Rather than talk of nation states clubbing together, Bickerton forwards the concept of the member state: ‘a distinctive kind of state where national power is exercised in concert with others’ (p. 4).  

European Integration: From Nation-State to Member State deserves praise for shining a spotlight back on EU Member States. As Nat Copsey and I remarked in our recently published article on David Cameron’s EU referendum pledge, ‘the study of individual Member States and how domestic political dynamics interacts with EU level politics remains surprisingly under-researched, with too much attention directed at assessing top-down Europeanization’; a view which is echoed in Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth’s forthcoming edited volume, The Future of the Euro (Oxford University Press, 2015).  

Bickerton, however, takes the argument further, seeking to conceptualize the notion of a member state. He notes correctly that in popular imagination – and one might add in the eyes of many British Eurosceptic journalists - a European bureaucracy stands like a Goliath ‘over national governments, pushing upon them a dizzying array of rules and directives’, but he adds, ‘what is curious about the operations of this apparent superstate is that at its heart we find not European officialdom but national representatives and national officials’ (p. 46). Through case studies of economic decision-making and foreign policy, European Integration: From Nation-State to Member State continues by asserting that ‘European integration is best understood as a process of cooperation undertaken not by nation states jealous of their sovereignty and their national prerogatives but by member states, entities whose self-understanding is inseparable from pan-European-level cooperation and policymaking’. For Bickerton, these member states are characterized by national executives and administrations whose main orientation is towards the cooperative decision-making process itself.’  (p. 49).  

Bickerton’s argument is an important one that deserves to be heard. At one level the simple distinction between nation and member state seems on reflection self-evident, but as the authors of the increasingly technical literature of EU scholarship would be well advised to remember, sometimes there is more insight and analytical traction to be gained from a simple idea than from a complex series of regression tests. 

It is clear, as Thomas Risse and others have argued, that the statehoods of countries like Germany, France, Italy or the Netherlands are increasingly defined by their EU membership; something which is arguably stronger in the newer member states of Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, one might suggest that especially for these newer member states - many of which (re-)gained independence with the breakup of the communist era multi-ethnic federations - that participation in international organizations such as NATO, OECD and the EU is seen as a marker of statehood. Pooling sovereignty enhances one’s statehood.           

Member statehood, in Bickerton’s book, however, not only involves the enmeshing of the national and supranational, but also an increasing disconnect between states and the populace over which they govern. As various decisions in the Eurozone crisis demonstrated all too clearly, national executives and national bureaucracies cooperated ‘together under the shared horizon of problem-solving, with little if any role at all for national publics’ (p. 47). 

European Integration: From Nation-State to Member State takes the argument further. Bickerton’s concept of the member state assumes the ‘purpose of limiting national power in ways that appear external to the national polity is in order that domestic populations are distanced from policymaking and decision-making’ (p. 68); hence ‘the state-society relationship is thus reconfigured in a way very alien from traditional thinking about the state: a presumed relationship of representation is replaced by one of insulation and separation’ (p. 69). Moreover, he maintains that ‘national power is no longer limited by popular will but seeks instead to limit that will via external constraints and rules’ (p. 52).   

Anger on the streets of Athens, mass demonstrations in Madrid, and the results of the 2014 European Parliament elections appeared to highlight that in recent times, for a sizeable chunk of citizens in the EU, there is a sense of insulation and separation from the decision-making that affects their lives. But Bickerton’s argument isn’t totally convincing. As Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks noted, public opinion’s role in European integration moved from ‘permissive consensus to constraining dissensus’ at around the time of the Maastricht Treaty. At times since then decision-making has been characterized by insulation and separation, but popular will has played a role. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the stances taken by Angela Merkel and David Cameron around the European Council table in recent times without considering the role played by public opinion. Although perhaps very much an exception, in the past few years it has felt that the Farage-fuelled Eurosceptic public opinion in the UK has been the tail wagging the dog in British policy and practice in Brussels. More broadly, I suspect that one of the key dynamics which will shape the EU in the coming years is how to generate effective solutions to common problems whilst considering the impact on public opinion. We should not underestimate the political antennae of those sitting round the key decision-making bodies in the EU representing member states. Public opinion does matter for these individuals as it will ultimately determine how long they stay in their seats.     

Despite my misgivings about Bickerton’s view of the role of public opinion, European Integration: From Nation-State to Member State deserves to be read by anyone seeking to understand the current dynamics of the European Union. The EU is a strange beast for comparative political scientists, as it defies easy categorization and is constantly evolving. The EU is more than the sum of its member state parts, but those parts have been transformed by being part of the whole.         

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