The euro crisis was undoubtedly an unprecedented challenge for the European Union. Its decision-making procedures and the relationship with and between Member States were tested as never before. The attempts to provide concerted responses to the crisis on the one hand brought EU institutional properties to the surface; on the other, they highlighted conflicts and controversies, and led to the emergence or reinforcement of different perspectives on the future of the Union. Sergio Fabbrini’s recent book, Which European Union? Europe after the Euro Crisis, starts from these premises.
The title of the book is deliberately vague: according to the author, “which European Union?” is a question that seeks answers of three different kinds. In a first sense, it asks what characteristics of the European Union as a political system have emerged in light of the stress-test of the Euro crisis. In a second sense, it asks what different perspectives on the nature and the future of the EU are present in the debate on the EU institutionalization process and are proposed and endorsed by different actors and Member States. Lastly, and even more significantly, it asks what are the future prospects for the Union, and what are the most feasible and effective forms that the EU institutionalization process should take.
Fabbrini’s book consists in a sophisticated and rigorous attempt to provide answers to these three questions. It is accordingly organized into three parts. In the first, Fabbrini reconstructs the main characteristics of the EU as a political system. He describes the EU as resulting from a compromise between the intergovernmental and supranational tensions that shaped its multi-linear institutionalization process. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 created two constitutions – one supranational and the other intergovernmental – subsequently formalized by the Lisbon Treaty. After Maastricht, however, the expansion of the role played by intergovernmental decisions weakened and hampered the institutionalization of supranational institutions. More recently, the Euro crisis has led to a further strengthening of intergovernmental institutions, thus altering the dual equilibrium promoted by the Lisbon Treaty. Decisions are taken by national governments negotiating within intergovernmental institutions (European Council and Council of Ministers), so that these latter are the privileged setting for decision-making, to the detriment of supranational institutions (Commission and European Parliament). As a result, Fabbrini emphasises, not only has the Euro crisis annulled the expectation of gradual convergence between the intergovernmental union and the supranational union; it has also made the coexistence of the two unions more difficult.
The vision that considers the EU to be an economic community is advocated by those Member States that maintain more sovereignist attitudes and have chosen not to join the monetary union. The second and third perspectives both envision the EU as a political union, rather than an economic community.
The second part of the book is devoted to analysis and interpretation of the different perspectives on what the EU is and what the EU should be that emerge from the political debate. According to Fabbrini, different actors and Member States offer different interpretations of the nature and the future of the EU and its institutions. The European Union “is an organization that has aggregated different visions of the integration process”, with different Member States acting in light of their own vision. Rather than moving at “more than one speed”, the integration process should be explained as one moving towards “more than one union” (p. xxiv). The EU institutionalization process is therefore the result of an implicit bargain among three different visions supported by different actors. The first vision stressed by Fabbrini is the one that considers the EU to be an economic community. This view is advocated by those Member States that maintain more sovereignist attitudes and have chosen not to join the monetary union. The second and third perspectives, on the other hand, both envision the EU as a political union, rather than an economic community. However, they diverge profoundly in how they understand the EU decision-making process. The second vision identified by Fabbrini describes the EU as an intergovernmental union. Supporters of this perspective – France, in particular – favour a more central coordination of policies to be decided in Brussels rather than by bilateral negotiation between governments. The third vision consists in the parliamentary union perspective. Supporters of this view – traditionally Germany, but now mainly Italy – push for further parliamentarization of EU decision-making procedure as a way to move towards a more democratic and accountable supranational political system.
Federalism—but not for all
The third and last part of the book proposes a reasonable and practically feasible institutional solution for the future of the EU. In Fabbrini’s view, some of the problems faced by the EU cannot be solved within the current institutional setting. Neither are EU institutions in the position to gain more strength while they are exposed to centrifugal tensions. Fabbrini argues that a first step towards a solution will consist in formal separation between the Eurozone and the non-Eurozone Member States; and therefore between those States willing to create a closer union and those interested in maintaining larger spheres of national sovereignty intact. The relation with those Member States outside the Euro area will thus consist in the creation of an inclusive economic community. According to Fabbrini, this step is necessary because only those within the monetary union can create a political union based on a constitutional agreement. He maintains that the States within the Euro area should work towards the definition and approval of a federal constitution.
The European Union, Fabbrini argues, should therefore be interpreted and institutionalized as a compound democracy.
Fabbrini’s reply to the question “which European Union?” thus consists in the institutionalization of a Federal Union interpreted as a union of states and citizens. Fabbrini bases his view on an analysis of the distinction between Federal States and Federal Unions. A federal state consists in a centralized political authority that governs diverse political entities that have emerged from the disaggregation of a previously unitary state. A federal union, on the other hand, results from the aggregation of states that have never shared a common political experience – culturally differentiated and with independent institutional settings – and that maintain a significant degree of decision-making autonomy. The only two cases that fall within this latter category are the USA and Switzerland. According to Fabbrini, the EU is a federal union that should progress further towards this model in its institutionalization process. What mainly distinguishes between the two types of federal system is the allocation of power: federal states are based on the ideal of the fusion of powers, while federal unions emerge from the ideal of the separation of powers – both horizontally through the institutionalization of check-and-balance mechanisms, and vertically. Fabbrini writes: “If federal states have a government as a single institution? monopolizing the ultimate decision-making power, federal unions do not have a government as a single institution, but take decisions through separate institutions sharing power, each one having a voice in the decision-making process” (p. xxiii). The European Union, Fabbrini argues, should therefore be interpreted and institutionalized as a compound democracy. A compound democracy, as exemplified by the cases of the USA and Switzerland, is the model of democracy of union states, as opposed to the models that characterize the democratic functioning of nation states. In Fabbrini’s view, a system of separate institutions sharing decision-making power is the only model for a political union composed of previously independent states that will allow reconciliation between governments’ interests at the intergovernmental level and citizens’ interests at the supranational level.
Hence, according to Fabbrini, the EU’s future should consist in the formalization of differentiations between different “depths” or levels of integration. The separation between Eurozone and non-Eurozone Member States will lead to the creation of a closer federal union between the former and an economic community inclusive of the latter. In turn, this will make it possible to create a political union based on a constitutional identity for the Euro area and to expand the single market into a more inclusive framework for all European states (inside or outside the EU).
The strengths of the book are undoubtedly the depth of its treatment based on sophisticated analytical categories and its careful and insightful historical reconstruction of the processes that have characterized the EU integration process. What mainly distinguishes Fabbrini’s study from other literature on EU integration is its reliance on the historical-institutionalist approach. Backed by Fabbrini’s expertise in the comparative politics and federalism literature, this approach enables him to pinpoint the power mechanisms that underlay the EU institutionalization process.
From an analytical standpoint, the political proposal put forward by Fabbrini seems undoubtedly appealing, and one able to animate the debate about the future of the EU. However, the question remains as to the actual feasibility of a proposal of this kind. If the EU integration and institutionalization processes are in the hands of those actors who have hitherto privileged and reinforced the intergovernmental decision-making method (inside but also outside the setting of EU intergovernmental institutions), it seems rather unlikely that those same actors would endorse and work towards a new model requiring them to yield larger spheres of national sovereignty to reinforced supranational institutions.
This review has also appeared on the LSE Review of Books as part of an editorial partnership with EuVisions.
An Italian version of this review has appeared on Il Mulino as part of an editorial partnership with EuVisions.
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