In Europe, regionalism after 1945 has taken the form of a process of integration that has led to the emergence of the European Union. It was founded, originally as the European Coal and Steel Community, through international treaties among the "original Six" member states, but it has since then expanded to encompass 27 states across the continent. Despite ambitious federalist plans that had been drawn up before, during and after the second world war, the development of the EU has in fact been a gradual process of building up an institutional architecture, a legal framework and a wide range of policies. Initially a purely West European creation borne out of the desire for reconciliation between France and Germany, European institutions were entrusted with the regulation of specific sectors of the economy (coal, steel, agriculture). Over time they have become responsible for an ever increasing range of tasks. At the beginning of the 21st century, these included transport, energy, environmental policy, consumer and health affairs as well as economic and monetary policy, the protection of human rights and coordination in foreign policy and military security, thus encroaching on what many regard as the core of state sovereignty. From very limited beginnings, both in terms of membership and in terms of scope, the European Union has therefore gradually developed into an important political institution whose presence has a significant impact, both internationally and domestically.
This gradual process of European integration has taken place at various levels. The first is the reform of the treaties that first established or subsequently reformed the European Community (Single European Act), later the European Union (i.e. the Maastricht Treaty, Amsterdam Treaty, Nice Treaty, and the Constitutional Treaty). These treaty changes are the result of Intergovernmental Conferences, in which representatives of national governments negotiate the legal framework within which the EU institutions operate. Such treaty changes require ratification in each of the member states in order to come into force because of the significance of achieving agreement among all member states on what have usually been substantial reforms. They are the grand bargains in the evolution of the EU.
Within the framework of these treaties, which are referred to as the Union's 'primary legislation', a number of institutions have more specific tasks and possess a degree of autonomy from the member states. They are responsible for running the day to day affairs of the Union, developing public policies, deciding on the annual budget and passing 'secondary' legislation such as EU directives and regulations.
It is important to recognize that the dynamics of decision making differ significantly across different arenas. Supranational institutions may have considerable autonomy in running the day to day affairs of the Union, but there are important differences between the more integrated areas of economic and social regulation on the one hand, and on the other the more intergovernmental pillars of foreign policy, and police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. In some areas, member states may have to accept decisions that are imposed on them. In others, they will be able to block decisions.
Decisions about treaty change or substantial institutional reforms tend to be dominated by national governments whose right to veto often leads to difficult and lengthy negotiations. But also in this regard, the role of the European institutions is noteworthy. Both Commission and Parliament have a say in the agenda-setting for treaty reform, the Secretariat of the Council of Ministers provides leadership in the course of negotiations, and the European Court of Justice through its case law has had an important role in the development of the fundamental principles governing the institutional life of the European Union.
To understand the integration process, one needs to take account of the role played by both member states and supranational institutions. Moreover, member states are not just represented by national governments, as a host of state, non state, and transnational actors participates in processes of domestic preference formation or in direct representation of interests in Brussels. The relative openness of the European policy process means that political groups or economic interests will try to influence EU decision making if they feel that their position is not sufficiently represented by national governments. That is one reason why the EU is increasingly seen as a system of multilevel governance, involving a plurality of actors on different territorial levels, supranational, national, and subnational.
The complexity of the EU institutional machinery, together with continuous change over time, has spawned a lively debate among integration theorists. Some approaches are applications of more general theories of international relations; the literature on both realism and interdependence has contributed to theorizing integration. Other scholars have regarded the European Union as sui generis and therefore in need of the development of dedicated theories of integration. The most prominent among these has been neo functionalism, which sought to explain the evolution of integration in terms of 'spillover" from one sector to another as resources and loyalties of elites were being transferred to the European level. More recently, as aspects of EU politics have come to resemble the domestic politics of states, scholars have turned to approaches drawn from comparative politics.
However, it has been the exchange between 'supranational' and 'intergovernmental' approaches which has had the greatest impact on the study of European integration. Supranational approaches regard the emergence of supranational institutions in Europe as a distinct feature and turn these into the main object of analysis. Here, the politics above the level of states are regarded as the most significant, and consequently the political actors and institutions at the European level receive most attention. Intergovernmentalist approaches, by contrast, continue to regard states as the most important actors to determine the process of integration and consequently concentrate on the study of politics between and within states. But whatever one's theoretical preferences, most scholars would agree that no analysis of the EU is complete without studying both the operation and evolution of the central institutions and the input from political actors in the member states.
In March 2007 the EU celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, the Euratom and EEC Treaty, the latter being the one that launched the process of economic integration that ultimately led to the creation of a single market and a single currency in Europe. This integration process, together with the EU's growing role in economic and social regulation in Europe, has led to a larger role for the EU in international affairs. The EU's power to negotiate external trade agreements went hand in hand with the establishment of a customs union in the 1960s. In the 1970s came the first attempts by member states to co operate in foreign policy matters, an ambition that was upgraded to a Common Foreign and Security Policy of the Union in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
With the end of the Cold War the opportunities--and challenges--for European integration changed dramatically. With the Iron Curtain gone, an originally Western European project has received a pan European dimension. Eight central and East European states, as well as Malta and Cyprus, joined the EU in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Accession negotiations were opened with Croatia and Turkey in 2005, but since then there have been increasing doubts about the absorption capacity of the Union without fundamental institutional reform.
Indeed, the promise of a 'wider European Union' has raised serious questions about the nature and direction of the integration process. The 'Eastern Enlargement' has generally been seen as a qualitative leap for the EU, promising--or threatening, as the view may be--to transform it. Concerns that the enlarged Union, if not reformed substantially, would find it difficult to take decisions and maintain a reliable legal framework led to several attempts to reform the treaties. The most wide-ranging proposals, and the most significant step-change in the language of integration, came with the proposed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which EU Heads of State or Government signed in 2004. This Constitutional Treaty is a sign of how far the EU has developed from its modest beginnings as a small international organisation. It has taken the long road through a gradual and often slow process to arrive at the kind of bold, federalist ambition that was originally eschewed in the 1950s. However, even in the 21st Century the time may not be right for such a project. The Constitutional Treaty, requiring ratification in all the member states in order to come into force, was rejected in referenda in France and the Netherlands, raising serious doubts not only about this attempt at institutional reform, but also about ambitions for a formal constitutionalization more generally. The ratification process was thrown into limbo, leading both to an extended reflection period and a renewed focus on delivering results in the making of sectoral policies for the European population rather than concentrating on abstract political projects. Still, the expectation to reform and simplify the treaties remains on the EU's agenda even if no simple solution presents itself in view of the conflicting demands being put forward. As on previous occasions in its history, the EU must find a balance between the lengthy search for compromise and the continuing pursuit of great ambitions for the future. The established path of a succession of a gradual development rather than big leaps is therefore likely to continue.
Thomas Christiansen is Senior Lecturer at the European Institute for Public Administration, Maastricht.…