Why we should still care about the EU’s institutions

In the midst of Europe’s various crises, why should we still care about its institutional make-up? Do institutions still matter?

This is the underlying theme of new research agendas on the development of the EU’s institutions, as reflected in the latest edition of the leading Oxford University Press textbook “The Institutions of the European Union” (John Peterson and Michael Shackleton, eds.), to which I am a contributing author. http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199574988.do This new collection analyses how the EU’s institutions provide direction to the EU, how they effectively manage the Union, and finally, how they integrate competing interests around the EU.

One thing that is particularly striking in the midst of the current popular unease about European integration is the impressive buoyancy of the EU’s own policy agenda. That is to say, in spite of increasing euroscepticism, in spite of elite reluctance to support the EU, and despite the fact that around half of all EU governments have fallen since the start of the Eurozone crisis, the EU’s institutions just keep working on and effectively “keep the show on the road”. Whilst there is no appetite for a radical overhaul of the EU’s institutional architecture, there are important questions to address which concern the issue of balance. Should we be moving to re-engineer the EU’s institutional balance, under current conditions? Does the current institutional design of the EU allow for “European interests” to emerge, rather than simply an aggregate of individual interests? Clearly, majoritarian systems will always lead to a bypassing of certain views, but the EU’s own gradual move over the years towards a system based on QMV suggests that majoritarianism is a principle that the EU’s institutional model firmly rejects, and will continue to do so.

But to what extent has the current EU crisis become a reality check for the “Community Method”? The new institutional motors which have been established to take forward the EU project, such as the so-called “six-pack” and the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (TSCG), themselves suggest that intergovernmentalism is again on the rise. But whilst the big risk of increased intergovernmentalism is clearly a system where member states are not treated equally, should the Community Method not be afraid of the rise of intergovernmentalism? The history of EU integration shows that increasing intergovernmentalism tends to presage a move towards renewed reliance on the Community Method. For instance, the European Monetary System (EMS) was itself an intergovernmental tool that led, ultimately, to the communitarian-run Eurozone. Hence, the rise of intergovernmental mechanisms to manage the Eurozone crisis might over time be brought into the Community Method in the same way.

So why should continue to study the EU’s institutions? Ultimately, the institutions tell us a great deal about power politics in the European Union. The institutions reflect the balance of power between competing interests, and the manner in which over the longer term, shifts in political relationships are to be managed. Institutions offer a means of arbitration between interests. They provide the rules of the game, and give shape to power exchanges. For this reason, the EU’s institutions not only matter, they continue to provide the mainstay of effective collective governance for Europe.

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