Something strange is going on in Europe. While the academic community, usually not adverse to great theoretical discussions and to attempts at modelizing the world, has so far dispayed rather limited interest for the ongoing intergovernmental conference, political leaders of various countries have engaged into an unprecedented debates on the ultimate objectives of the integration process. In the wake of Joschka Fischer’s speech at Humboldt University, several heads of state and Prime ministers have outlined their views on the future architecture of Europe, while their representatives were struggling on a draft charter of fundamental rights, which many regard as a first step towards some kind of European Constitution.
Needless to say, this represents a major change in the way national leaders approach the integration process. The history of the last 50 years is a long story functional arrangements based on concrete projects. We are more familiar with self-proclaimed empiricism and ad hoc compromises worked out at a late hour in smoked-filled rooms than with principled deliberations on the common good. While one might wonder about the reasons for this unexpected U-turn, I would like to confine myself to a series of remarks, both of method and of substance. Is functionalism really dead, as is now widely assumed ? How likely is it that the present discussion will lead to the emergence of new institutional arrangements that will be perceived as more legitimate by the European citizens ?
Is functionalism dead ? Much of the current discussion is based on the view that the functional method worked out by the Monnets and the Schumans, based on concrete objectives and gradual change, has long lived. The Maastricht ratification debates have signalled a deeply-rooted dissatisfaction with decision-making processes based on accomodation among the elites and a widespread disenchantment about the rather obscure EU system. It has become commonplace to lay the blame for this situation on the functionalist path followed so far : deliberate avoidance of discussions on the utimate (political) objectives of European integration and the multiplication of ad hoc cooperation schemes, it is said, have lead to a situation in which citizens are unable to make sense of the present construction. Mr Fischer was most explicit in this respect, stressing that the current maze of EU activities were largely the result of « inductive communitarization as per the Monnet method ». This led him to plead in favour of a radical shift, leading ultimately to a federal-type arrangement:
« In the past, European integration was based on the « Monnet method » with its comunitarization approach in European institutions and policy. This gradual process of integration, with no blueprint for the final state, was conceived in the 1950s for the economic integration in a small group of countries. Succesful as it was in that scenario, this approach has proved to be of only limited use for the political integration and democratization of Europe. … [T]oday a crisis of the Monnet method can no longer be overlooked, a crisis that cannot be solved according to the method’s own logic.»
The demise of functionalism is generally attributed to two related factors. First, it is perceived as an untransparent method, unable to respond to the current aspirations of democratic control over the rulers : if the objectives of the whole venture are not clearly spelt out, how can it be democratically legitimated ? Second comes the fear of being trapped in a system from which evasion would no longer be possible a fear largely fed by reconstructions of integration as a sequence of « spillovers », i.e. the process by which sectoral cooperation schemes create the need for further integration in neighbouring areas, leading to a gradual erosion of national sovereignty, which no-one is willing to accept anymore.
Yet, these misgivings largely stem from a simplistic view of the integration process. With all due respect for the Founding Fathers, it is naïve to depict them as architects of a system supposed to lead to a would-be model1. They were rather talented political entrepreneurs, able to transform apparent dilemmas into positive-sum games and to convince the leaders of the day of the wisdom of their views. Likewize, one could argue that spillovers were far from automatic or conflict-free : they always required a political input. This is clear for all major steps in the history of European integration. The 1992 programme was not an indirect consequence of the removal of tariff barriers, nor was EMU an unescapable corollary of the single market. Both required political decisions in their own right, often painstakingly achieved. And I need not recall that even in day-to-day decisions in areas where the so-called « community method » applies, national governments, represented in the Council of Ministers, often enjoy the power to oppose decisions, even though for a variety of decisions they may prefer not to do so. The fear of a political engrenage is partly due to the pace of the integration process in the last fifteen years, and partly to the fact that governements have often found it common to hide behind decisions taken by « Brussels ».
Thus, it is a mistake to depict Europe as a kind of renaissance cathedral entirely designed by a powerfully-minded architect. To stick to religious architecture, one could say it is more like a medieval cathedral, patiently build by several generations of craftsmen with the materials available to them, in response to what they perceived as the needs of their time hence probably the lack of coherence of the whole construction.
It is of course near impossible to resist to an invitation to engage into a a more principled discussion on the ideal architecture of tomorrow. Yet, a question needs to be asked : how likely is it that such a discussion will yield positive results ? Past functional arrangements were not designed to deceive public opinion and to impose subrepticiously unpopular compromises. They simply reflected a fact known to observers of public policy worldwide : it is easier to achieve compromise on concrete proposals, whose costs and benefits can be (more or less) anticipated, and which can be the subject of trade-offs of various kinds, than to reach a consensus on an abstract definition of the public good, and on ways to achieve it. Visions of justice tend to vary widely : the larger the group in which the discussion takes place, and the more heterogeneous it is, the more difficult it will be to find an acceptable compromise. Discussions on institutions tend to follow the same kind of logic. Everyone has his or her pet solutions, which often reflect national traditions. Thus French views on the would-be European constitution almost unavoidably foresee an elected President and a hierarchy of norms, as in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, while German drafts ritually include a list of competences designed (so we are told) to avoid any centralist drift. Concepts can also be divisive : federalism, which is the anthesis of centralisation, is often seen as a synonymous of uniformity and hierarchy in countries like the United Kingdom or France, as Mr Fischer rapidly found out. No matter how incorrect these perceptions may be, they are political facts that cannot be ignored. Naturally, the symbolic value of institutions is such that are difficult to achieve ; yet in a system of decision by consensus, compromises are unavoidable.
The history of European integration is replete with examples that illustrate the comparative advantages of a project-based approach. One of the reasons for the success of the Single European Act was its apparent modesty : far from following the European Parliament’s blueprint of a quasi-federal scheme — Altierro Spinnelli's Draft Treaty on European Union — it limited itself to what was perceived by many as a minimalist programme of removal of non-tariff barriers. Once the objective was endorsed by the European Council, Treaty changes which had been vehemently opposed by some Member States a few months before including an extension of qualified majority voting suddenly became acceptable to all. Maastricht represents another telling example of the virtues of institutional pragmatism. The Treaty on European Union was prepared by two separate IGCs : one dealing with economic and monetary union and the other with institutional issues, under the rather uninspiring label of « political union ». The result is known : while the first exercize, following a project-based approach, led to the creation of a single currency, one of the most fundamental changes in the history of European integration, , the IGC on political union will remain in textbooks for having given birth to the pillars-structure of the EU not exactly a model of inspired statemanship. Moreover, the most radical changes contained in the EMU part owed more to the nature of the project at issue than to purely institutional considerations. The independance of the European central bank, and the fact that not all Member States are « represented » on its governing board, were not decisions inspired by a suden conversion to federalist orthodoxy but, more prosaically, a way to guarantee to financial markets and German public opinion alike that the ECB, being immune from political interference, could be trusted to pursue its « constitutional » objective of price stability.
What one reads of the intergovernmental conference currently under way would appear to confirm the difficulty of a reform-process exclusively limited to institutional issues.
We had been told it was more reasonable to confine the negotiations to a reduced agenda the famous « Amsterdam leftovers » ; the main outcome of months of discussions on these issues seems to have been to resurrect an artificial cleavage between large and small states and the prospects of reaching a satisactory compromise seem presently bleak.
All this does not augur well of the discussion on the future institutional architecture of Europe which Mr. Fischer has invited us to engage into.
Institutional engineering will not do To these (admittedly pragmatic) considerations on the dynamics of reform processes, one is tempted to add a word of caution on more fundamental issues, for much of the present discussion seems inspired by somewhat naïve views on the social impact of institutional arrangements.
The staring point of most analyses is a simple finding: there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way the EU system presently operates, which is perceived to be unduly complex and untransparent hence a desire to make it more intelligible even to a lay audience. To be sure, the analysis is largely correct. All three poles of the « institutional triangle » are in crisis. The European Parliament seems unable to decide how best to exploit its newly acquired powers, the Commission is far from having overcome the crisis of March 1999, and it is now widely recognized that there is no such thing as a Council : there are regular meetings of members of national governments, often acting without much coordination. Add to this the eagerness of the European Council to intervene in day-to-day matters and the emergence of new actors such as the European Central Bank or Mr. CFSP, and it will be easy to see why making sense of the actual functioning of the whole system has become an arduous task. It is therefore tempting to introduce more clarity, preferably by transposing at European level institutions and techniques that have been fully tried and tested at national level : an elected President, a fully-fledged government, an upper house, separation of powers, a constitution, etc.
This is precisely the weak spot in the reasoning. Many value judgements on the present EU system seem to rest on a fairly idealized vision of national governance. The complexity of the European system is implicitly opposed to the alleged simplicity of domestic political systems : reading such judgements, one might be lead to believe that at national level, there is a simple chain of command whereby all decisions can be linked to the supreme will of the people, public authority is exerted in an orderly fashion, according to crystal-clear principles enshrined in a constitutional text, which is known to every citizen. Reality tends to be slightly more complex : even within unitary nation-states, patterns of governance can vary greatly from one policy area to the other. Foreign policy does not respond to the same kind of logic as domestic policies, nor does civil society exert the same degree of influence on defence issues as, say, on environmental policies, and the independence of central banks is a common feature to many countries. Likewise, there tends to be a fairly wide gap between the « dignified » part of public life that which is codified in the constitution and the way the system actually operates : unaccountable bureaucratric structures, obscure committees, and para-constitutional bodies (such as political parties, for instance) can indeed wield considerable power. In other words, even at state level the clarity to which many well-inspired critics of the EU aspire looks like a lost paradise, assuming of course it has ever existed. The complexity of modern societies has given rise to elaborate governance structures, and it is far from clear that constitutional schemes of any kind will allow a return to the mythical simplicity of a Locke or a Montesquieu.
Secondly, the legitimizing power of institutions is very often over-estimated. Short perhaps of a few countries, such as the United States, where there appears to be a widespread belief in the superior merits of national institutions, popular adhesion to a given form of institutional architecture cannot be taken for granted. The symbolic value of institutional change is therefore likely to be limited. Should the EU opt for the Wesminster model of government, would British Euroskepticism really fade out? This seems rather unlikely: people would most likely try to see what benefits they may derive from the change. Do they gain a greater say in the decision-making process? Is power (wherever it is located) under control?
The fact that institutions do not command immediate legitimacy may actually be good news for the European Union, which brings together countries with a wide diversity of political cultures, and can therefore not simply replicate any national model. Yet it leaves the Union with a mighty problem. If enhanced legitimacy is not likely to flow either from a simplified form of governance (which is out of reach) or from instant popular adhesion to a new institutional setting, how can the legitimacy of the present system be improved? Clearly, as Joseph Weiler has repeatedly argued,2 the EU cannot expect to receive the kind of emotional allegiance which derives from the sense of belonging to a community united by ethnic or linguistic ties, as the latter are notoriously absent at European level: it must demonstrate its usefulness day after day.
Legitimation by Results This, in a sense, brings us back to functionalism. Although the concept is associated to the idea of elite accomodation, functionalism had the immense advantage of providing simple answers to the question: what does Europe stand for? The coal and steel Community stood for peace and freedom, the common market for economic prosperity, and so did the single market in the 1980s. This enabled people to make some sense of the project, and it provided some simple parameters to assess the performance of the whole system. Like it or not, years of Eurobarometer surveys have shown that there was a clear relation between the unemployment and the growth rates and support for the EU: pro-EU feelings grow when the economy is in expansion and the unemployment declines.3Similarly, Europe was judged severely for its failure to prevent the eruption of ethnic violence in former Yugoslavia, and it will probably be blamed for the current weakness of the Euro.
This suggests that it is often on the basis of its performance that the European Union will be judged. Arguably, the same is increasingly true at national level, where there appears to be widespread disenchantment about politics. But the phenomenon is likely to be stronger at European level, given the weakness of other forms of legitimation. Being presently unable to create an « imagined community » like nation-states, the EU has little choice: Projects are needed to give sense to the European venture, and its ability to reach positive results is a key element of its overall legitimacy.
Does it follow from this that one should altogether abandon any attempt at institutional reform, and rather focus on developing a managerial culture at EU level, as one often hears in some countries?
Not at all, for the ability to achieve results is naturally determined by institutional design. From that standpoint, the prospect of the forthcoming enlargement is clearly worrysome, no matter how justified it may be on historical grounds. As has been amply stressed, it is difficult to conceive how a Commission of thirty-five members or a Council with about thirty delegations could effectively dispatch their regular duties. The problem is not merely that this would prevent the EU form exploring new shores, as is often suggested, it is rather that it would no longer be able to fulfil its present tasks. Would the decentralized competition policy now proposed by the Commission effectively work in countries which have just discovered market economy. Given the rather diverse expectations of their respective constituencies, will national governements be able to act in common when the next food scare will come up?
Thus, even from a down-to-earth efficiency standpoint, institutional reform is much needed. If anything, it should rather go furtherthan the current agenda, and encompass issues such as relationships between the Commission and the Parliament, or the much-needed reform of the Council of Ministers. Likewise, giving a voice to the people appears like an imperative necessity, in an era characterized by growing mistrust in political elites, at regional as well as at national level. But here is the crucial point : now matter how necessary it may be, institutional reform is unlikely to emerge as the result of an exclusive focus on institutional issues.
Where do we go from here ? So far, I have argued that the functionalist approach which has dominated the history of European integration was largely a by-product of structural constraints which render an agreement on the ulimate objectives of the process more difficult, not to say unlikely. I have also stressed that given the weakness of emotional allegiance to Europe, the Union's legitimacy was more closely linked to its ability to reach substantive results than to any form of institutional architecture.The reader who will have followed me up to this point might object with reason that (s)he has found more warnings about evils to avoid than recommendations for the future.
To bring my own brick to the construction, let me then spell ou a few points which in my view need to be addressed before we can embark in a review of the different institutional options.
The enlargement of the Union is widely regarded as a historical necessity. It is indeed a powerful message to send to countries engaged in a painful — and therefore politically costly — transition to market economy and an open society. Yet beyond that objective, there remains subtantial ambiguity as to what the ambitions of an enlarged Union might be. Will the current members, now so obsessed about "getting their money back", be willing to provide to newcomers the kind of financial solidarity the latter would be entitled to expect from better off members of the same club? Will the newcomers be able to provide effective guarantees to the safety-minded peoples of Western Europe, which expect from the Union a high level of environmental or health protection? And what kind of relationships should Europe try to build with its neighbours or with partners on the world scene. Difficult questions indeed, but questions that need to be asked now, to avoid major political clashes in the future, and questions the answers to which must shape our institutional thinking.
Those who, concerned about the potential implications of enlargement, have pleaded in favour of a new structure that would preserve the essential features of the European Union, face a similar difficulty. On the level of ideas, one can but agree to the importance of cooperation devices that have played a revolutionary role in interstate relations, by replacing the logic of power with mutual respect, the search for common interests and respect for the rule of law. Yet, on a more practical plane, it remains hard to imagine that national governments, let alone public opinion, prompted by a rational understanding of the situation, would readily subscribe to an abstract project of a supranationalist avant-garde of some sort. Short of a project that will give flesh to this intuition and illustrate its concrete benefits, the odds are that it will merely be perceived as a a sheer abstraction, generous in its intentions but unable to elicit the degree of support that is needed for any ambitious political design to prevail in a heterogeneous polity.
Making a success of enlargement and preserving the « virtuous » character of European integration are noble aspirations. Their chances of success are dependent on our ability to conceive ways to make them palatable to political leaders and public opinion alike. What one needs today are not only imaginative political thinkers, but also talented political entrepreneurs.
1 Philippe Schmitter, "Examining the Present Euro-Polity with the Help of Past Theories", in Gary Marks et al., Governance in the European Union, London: Sage, 1996 at 2.
2 The Constitution of Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
3 Bruno Cautrès, "Les attitudes vis à vis de l'Europe", in Pierre Bréchon et Bruno Cautrès, Les enquêtes Eurobaromètres — Analyse comparée des données scocio-politiques, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1998, 91 at 112-13.