The European Union at 50-Still an Uncertain Destination

Article excerpt

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. …