European Integration Research Paper

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European integration is the product of the selective pooling of national sovereignty, or ultimate jurisdiction over a body politic, by postwar European nation-states. Many regional organizations exist to promote and foster co- operation in Europe, above all the European Union (EU, formerly known as the European Economic Community, European Community or Common Market). From its origins in the 1950s, the EU expanded from six to 15 member states, with most of the rest of Europe seeking to join by the end of the twentieth century (see Table 1). The EU maintained close links to a variety of other organizations which promote or foster European cooperation, such as NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But the EU was by far the most powerful, important, and successful manifestation of European integration.

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European Integration Research Paper

1. European Integration And Political Science

European integration poses daunting challenges to political science as a discipline. The EU’s supranational character, particularly the legal superiority of its legislation over its member states’ national laws, is replicated in no other international organization. The EU defies traditional conceptions of nation-states as atomized, self-sufficient units that resist interdependence and engage in alliances strictly on an ad hoc basis. The Union is based on international treaties, but ones that function as a sort of constitution for a quasi-federalist system of government (Weiler 1999). Nonetheless, the EU sustains more than it supersedes the nation-state in Europe. It is plausible to argue that it has acted to strengthen—and not weaken—postwar European states by fostering economic growth and recovery, providing a bulwark against the Soviet bloc, and enhancing Europe’s role in international affairs (Milward 1992).

European integration has been subject to frequent stops and starts. The EU rarely has shaken free of tensions between distinct national interests and shared economic interdependence. However, a series of revisions to the EU’s Treaties—four in 15 years after the mid-1980s—had the general effect of more closely binding together the Union’s member states, strengthening its common institutions, and adding to its policy remit. It also encouraged the emergence of EU studies as a subdiscipline in its own right.

2. European Policies And Politics

Over time, the politics of the EU have become far more like the domestic politics of its member states, and less like the international politics of relations between states (Wallace and Wallace 2000). The primary reason for the emergence of the EU as a polity in its own right has been political will to create an internal or ‘single’ European market, free of barriers to internal trade and constituting the world’s largest single capitalist market. The ambition to create an internal market was reflected in the EU’s founding treaties, but began to be realized only after the Single European Act (SEA) effectively relaunched European integration in the late 1980s, following a period of deep stagnation and ‘Eurosclerosis.’

Throughout this period, the European Court of Justice remained the ultimate arbiter of legal disputes, and many of its decisions advanced European integration as a political project. The EU’s hybrid executive/civil service, the European Commission, retained exclusive powers to propose legislation. However, the SEA (ratified in 1987) substantially altered the Union’s institutions and rules governing relations between them. Before the late 1980s most EU legislation required the unanimous agreement of the Council of Ministers, the EU’s main legislative body offering representation to all member states. After the SEA, renewed political commitment to the internal market combined with extended majority voting on the Council—with each member state given a weighted number of votes based roughly on population— transformed European integration. Increased majority voting significantly empowered the Commission, which also achieved considerable autonomy in a number of policy sectors, including agriculture and competition policy. The volume of EU legislation mushroomed after 1987 and the Union developed a range of new policies, mostly in areas linked to the internal market such as environmental protection, research, and the development of its poorer regions. It even developed ambitions to create a single currency to take the internal market, and European integration, a major step further (see McNamara 1998).

Meanwhile, EU decision making became increasingly complex and protean. Council deliberations remained mostly closed, a dizzying variety of different decision rules applied to different policies, and polls reflected popular apathy or cynicism with the EU. The growing perception that European integration needed to be democratized allowed the European Parliament (EP) to gain in strength and stature. In 1979, it was directly elected for the first time. By the early 1990s, it had been made a legal colegislator with the Council in many policy areas (including the internal market). However, EP elections attracted low voter turnouts and the Parliament remained an ill-disciplined institution that engaged in effective collective action only rarely. The EU was far from being a parliamentary democracy. Its lack of either a government or opposition made it difficult to apply majoritarian methods of democratic control.

EU Treaty revisions in the 1990s made the Union, on balance, an even more complex institution. The Maastricht Treaty (ratified in 1993) upgraded the EP’s powers but also created two new ‘pillars’ to foster intergovernmental cooperation between member states on foreign and justice home affairs policies, creating new (almost purely unanimous) decision procedures and sidelining the EU’s supranational institutions. Neither pillar enjoyed much success, with the EU’s performance during the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s particularly criticized despite the Maastricht Treaty’s sanction of a new ‘Common Foreign and Security Policy.’ Very limited progress on justice and home affairs cooperation eventually led to a more powerful role for the EU’s institutions in this area, but according to an entirely new set of decision rules not previously used in any other EU policy sector.

The Maastricht Treaty also set a firm timetable and entry criteria for monetary union. Most governments that wished to join the single currency were forced to slash their public budgets and embrace austerity when Europe was suffering through its worst recession since the 1930s. The drive to monetary union, along with the EU’s failure in Bosnia, further dampened popular enthusiasm for European integration.

The Amsterdam Treaty (ratified in 1999) mostly tinkered at the margins of the EU’s constitutional settlement, despite intense pressures to enlarge the EU to take in new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. Qualified majority voting was extended to very few new policy areas even though it was impossible to imagine that a future EU of 25–30 member states could achieve unanimity very often. The inevitable effect was to raise doubts about the future political unity of a much larger and more diverse EU, particularly one that offered membership to new Central and Eastern European states which were far less modern or wealthy than its existing members.

3. The Study Of European Integration

The study of early post-War institution building in Europe was dominated by functionalists (or ‘neofunctionalists,’ see Haas 1958), broadly in line with the rise of structural functionalism as a general theory of social science. Neofunctionalism assumed that European integration was driven primarily by the need for states to cooperate in noncontroversial, technical sectors in order to grow their economies. It predicted that integration in selected areas of policy would ‘spill over’ into separate but related sectors, for both functional and political reasons, thus giving integration a self-sustaining character. It was assumed that the European experience of integration would be replicated in other parts of the world.

The stagnation of European integration in the late 1960s and 1970s led neofunctionalism, and EU studies more generally, to fall into disrepute. The reinvigoration of integration in Europe in the 1980s prompted an enormous increase in academic interest in the EU. Eventually, debates between advocates of liberal theories of international relations (Moravcsik 1998) and institutionalist theories of political organization (Armstrong and Bulmer 1998) came to dominate EU studies (see Puchala 1999). Liberal intergovernmentalism theorized that European integration was the outcome of the pursuit of economic advantage by rational state agents, with the EU’s supranational institutions only granted as much power as was needed to seal bargains between them. Institutionalists countered that European integration was highly path- dependent, produced many unanticipated consequences, and was uncontrollable by states in important respects. Few advocates of either theory sought to disavow neofunctionalism altogether, particularly given the development of the EU’s own system of law, powers of enforcement, and money.

Recent scholarship on European integration reflects consensus that the EU has evolved into a distinctive polity with multiple levels which is like no other in existence (see Marks et al. 1996). On the one hand, its rise to become one of the most important sources of public policy in Europe has prompted the application of conceptual tools associated with policy analysis in national (especially federal) contexts (Peterson and Bomberg 1999). On the other, the sui generis nature of the EU creates an ‘N of 1’ problem: the EU is not a readily comparable case for most general theories or methodologies of social science. One effect is that scholarship on the EU is often subject to bitter criticism by nonspecialists, in part because it is viewed as nonscientific and atheoretical. However, a related problem is that European integration generally and the EU specifically are so complex as to resist simple generalizations and often comprehension by anyone but devoted students.

4. Future Theory, And Research

In some respects, the EU is becoming less sui generis, particularly given new regional economic projects in the Americas and Asia. The Union is likely to become the subject of more normative theory and research, as its perceived success makes it a model for other experiments in regional cooperation. The creation of the Euro has attracted a further group of scholars—monetary economists—to EU studies, and the Union’s inevitable enlargement makes it a primary focus for scholars specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. International relations scholars preoccupied with military or ‘strategic studies’ are also likely to find the EU impossible to ignore as it seeks to develop its own military capability in the early twenty-first century.

In theoretical terms, scholarship on globalization increasingly offers insight into what the EU does, how and why. Most EU policies are designed either to defend European interests in an increasingly global economy, or soften the nefarious effects of globalization. On balance, the continuing structural shift in power from states to markets encourages continued European integration. The EU is the most successful experiment in international cooperation in modern history. However, the enlargement of the EU is likely to transform the Union fundamentally, in ways that challenge the notion that ever closer European unity is inevitable.


  1. Armstrong K A, Bulmer S J 1998 The Governance of the Single European Market. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK
  2. Haas E B 1958 The Uniting of Europe: Political, Social, and Economic Forces, 1950–7. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  3. Marks G, Hooghe L, Blank K 1996 European integration from the 1980s: state-centric v. multi-level governance. Journal of Common Market Studies 34: 341–78
  4. McNamara K R 1998 The Currency of Ideas: Monetary Politics in the European Union. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  5. Milward A S 1992 The European Rescue of the Nation-state. Routledge, London
  6. Moravcsik A 1998 The Choice for Europe. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  7. Peterson J, Bomberg E 1999 Decision-making in the European Union. St Martin’s Press, New York
  8. Puchala D J 1999 European integration and supranational governance. Journal of Common Market Studies 37: 317–31
  9. Wallace H, Wallace W (eds.) 2000 Policy Making in the European Union, 4th edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  10. Weiler J H H 1999 The Constitution of Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
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