If you thought that the 1992 Maastricht treaty ushered in a new phase for Europe, in which the continent’s integration passed the halfway mark between international cooperation and the region of federalism, think again. Maastricht in fact marked the end of Europe’s march towards supranationalism and the beginning of a new model of integration, in which political decisions would be increasingly dominated by member states to the detriment of the community method. This is, in essence, the central thesis of the “new intergovernmentalism”, a new perspective on European integration presented in this volume by Christopher Bickerton, Dermot Hodson and Uwe Puetter.

Bringing the (member) state back in

The book follows a recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies as an attempt to establish the new intergovernmentalism as an integration paradigm, and extend its currency by gathering a number of EU scholars to discuss its merits and limitations. The volume’s core is in chapters one and two, which present the two main components of the new intergovernmentalist framework. The first is what Bickerton, Hodson and Puetter call “integration paradox”, namely the tendency, after Maastricht, for European integration to proceed in such a way as to leave member states in control, either through fora (most notably the European Council) where they act directly through deliberation and consensus, or by delegating decision-making to de novo bodies–e.g. the European Central Bank, Eurojust, Frontex, or the European Stability Mechanism–removed from the traditional community method and containing more direct channels for national representation and influence. These new institutional dynamics, the editors argue, elude existing theories of integration, such as neofunctionalism, with its emphasis on traditional supranational institutions, but also (old) intergovernmentalism, which is ill-equipped to account for the EU’s recent advances in core state areas like foreign affairs, monetary policy or macroeconomic coordination.

The second component is an argument on the origins of the integration paradox, which centres on the decline of the post-war compromise and the crisis of representation that has affected western European states in the past three to four decades. Increasingly unable to maintain a balance between economic growth and social peace, and faced with ever more frustrated and fluid electorates, starting from the 1970s (and accelerating through the 1980s) governments began to turn to intergovernmental integration as a way not only to find new economic solutions inspired by liberalism and deregulation, but also to insulate themselves from domestic societal pressures.

This transition to “member statehood” allowed European governments on the one hand to replace Keynesianism with integration as a blueprint for economic policy (while retaining control and room for national diversity), and on the other to compensate for the domestic loss of authority by appealing to the horizontal legitimacy deriving from “Europe” and the neutral and technical nature of its institutions. The end result of these mechanisms is a system of increasingly European policy-making coexisting with stubbornly national politics, in which the member states’ cartelization makes them strong at the EU level yet weak and delegitimized at the national one, thus producing a situation of permanent political disequilibrium.

A matter of perspective

In the remainder of the book, a symposium of EU scholars tackles the six hypotheses in which the editors summarize the new intergovernmentalism, exploring their applicability to several institutions and policy areas. The results are mixed: while considerable support emerges, for instance, from the chapters on the European Council (Uwe Puetter), the Banking union (David Howarth and Lucia Quaglia), and the Justice and Home Affairs area (Sarah Wolff), others are more cautious: in his study of treaty reform, for example, Thomas Christiansen confirms parts of the integration paradox but at the same time highlights the role that supranational bodies have often played at various stages of the reform process. Examining the Commission, John Peterson argues that this institution has actually much to gain, in terms of access to expertise and information, from the establishment of de novo agencies. Finally, in his contribution on the ECB, Dermot Hodson himself has to amend one of the six hypotheses, observing that, in certain conditions, this institution actually does seek greater competences just as is expected of traditional supranational bodies.

The new intergovernmentalism overreaches descriptively by putting forward a covering model of post-Maastricht integration which is not tenable if not by disregarding important chunks of evidence, or using concepts in an overly creative fashion.

In a different context, these chapters would amount to a deep and solid analysis of the EU’s political dynamics in the past two and a half decades. Read against the new intergovernmentalist theoretical setup, however, their most immediate effect is to reveal the limits of this framework. The latter boil down to two cases of “overreaching”. First, the new intergovernmentalism overreaches descriptively by putting forward a covering model of post-Maastricht integration which is not tenable if not by disregarding important chunks of evidence, or using concepts in an overly creative fashion. As for the former, Bickerton, Hodson and Puetter underplay not only macroscopic institutional changes such as the extension of qualified majority voting and the normalization of the co-decision procedure, but also the empirical fact that many of the latest instances of integration have actually involved the traditional community method channels and procedures. All in all, the picture emerging from the EU’s recent developments is probably less akin to the one proposed in this volume than to what Vivien Schmidt has recently called a “new normal”, composed of intergovernmental elements along with new supranationational and even parliamentarian ones.

If theoretical agnosticism might work for simpler propositions, in a complex construct like this it has the effect of making the relationships between the various pieces unclear.

As regards the latter, conceptual stretching is perhaps best epitomized by the analysis of the ECB as a de novo institution. Even leaving aside the irony of seeing what is probably the most state-like EU institution portrayed as a defeat for supranationalism, the current position of Germany–the EU’s most powerful member–vis-à-vis the policies of the ECB makes it quite difficult to deem the latter as more easily controlled by states than is the case for other supranational institutions.

The new intergovernmentalism overreaches also theoretically, for it presents arguments structured like a general theory of (post-Maastricht) integration, but lacking important attributes of it, first of all a clear ontology. To be sure, this is intentional on the part of the editors, who see their framework as “compatible with a variety of ontologies” (p. 45). But if theoretical agnosticism might work for simpler propositions, in a complex construct like this it has the effect of making the relationships between the various pieces unclear. For example, while the idea of government cartelization is stimulating, it is perhaps easier to explain it as a cause rather than a consequence of anti-political sentiments. Further, the editors hardly engage at all with the reality of power differentials in the continent, and the possibility that not all states might like intergovernmental arrangements to the same degree. Finally, the possibility of sequencing among types of integration, whereby intergovernmental formulas could be–as they often have in the past–a stepping stone towards more supranationalism, is never seriously entertained. And yet in some cases, such as the “fiscal compact”, this is even a declared intention of the member states.

When less is more

What does all this leave us with? For all its limits, this book has two big merits, which deserve to be underlined here. One, general, is to give an important contribution to the “renaissance” of integration theory, a subject which was almost dormant for the best part of the 2000s but which is now making a comeback, largely as a result of the euro crisis. This volume raises the level of the debate in the field and, to its great credit, also advances it in a very direct sense by including an excellent critical chapter by Simon Bulmer.

The second, more particular, is to highlight and unpack some crucial aspects of today’s EU. The integration paradox is indeed a powerful idea. Yet, as Bulmer rightly notes in his contribution, it seems to belong less to the post-Maastricht era as a whole than to post-crisis Europe. This makes it by no means less important, but it does call for a different kind of theorizing: one with a shorter range and much more narrowly focused on explaining the differences between newly intergovernmental areas and traditionally supranational ones. Shifting the explanatory focus from the existence to the mode of integration is, after all, exactly what Bickerton, Hodson and Puetter set out to do at the beginning of the volume. It is a pity that they achieve the goal only partially in this book.

Photo Credits CC: Luca Biada 

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Christopher J. Bickerton, Dermot Hodson, and Uwe Puetter (eds.), The New Intergovernmentalism: States and Supranational Actors in the Post-Maastricht Era, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015


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