European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 2: What is the European Union?

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The beginning of wisdom, runs a Chinese proverb, is to call things by their right names. But this is no easy task with the EU, which fits few of the conventional models of the way in which politics and government function. In our attempts to understand how large-scale political communities are organized, we have only two mainstream points of reference: states and international organizations. But while the EU has some of the qualities of both, it is not entirely either.

As we saw in Chapter 1, attempts to agree how it evolved have spawned lengthy theoretical debates, but few agreements. There has been a similar problem with the debates over what the EU has become. Scholars have suggested concepts such as multi-level governance, consociationalism and quasi-federal polity, but none has yet won general acclaim. Others have applied older and more well-worn terms such as federal and confederal, but the former is not a neutral idea for many Europeans, and (for reasons that are not entirely clear) few scholars or politicians are willing to think of the EU as a confederation. Yet others have opted for describing the EU as an actor, or as sui generis (unique), before quickly moving on. For Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, the EU was simply an ‘unidentified political object’.

Chapter 1 focused on theories developed by scholars of International Relations, who mainly see the European Community/Union as a cooperative arrangement among governments. This chapter, by contrast, focuses on the European Union as a political system in its own right, and reviews the arguments made by scholars of comparative politics and public policy. After asking where the discussion starts, it reviews the comparative method, and then goes into detail on the contrasting features of federations and confederations.
  • There are at least five possible approaches to understanding the EU today: we could think of it as an international organization, as a regional integration association, as a unique organization with unique qualities, as a political system in its own right, or as a combination of all four.
  • While the debates over how the EU evolved were dominated by scholars of international relations, the debate over what the EU has become have been increasingly dominated by scholars of comparative politics, who approach the EU as a political system with its own institutions, processes, procedures, and policies.
  • There is a debate over whether we should approach the EU as a government, or use the looser term governance to understand its procedures. The term multi-level governance has won some support.
  • Federalism has been given short shrift as a means of understanding the EU. This is partly because there is so much resistance to the idea of a federal Europe, and also because there is no standard model of federalism.
  • Even less attention has been paid to confederalism as a means of understanding the EU, in part because there are few historical examples of confederalism at work (and no contemporary examples), and in part because it falls short of the hopes of European federalists.
  • One compromise may be to think of the EU as a unique hybrid federal-confederal system of administration.