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The European UnionHow does it work?

The European Union: How does it work? (6th edn)

Daniel Kenealy, Amelia Hadfield, Richard Corbett, and John Peterson
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p. 26511. Conclusionlocked

p. 26511. Conclusionlocked

  • Daniel Kenealy,
  • Amelia Hadfield
  •  and Richard Corbett


The EU is extraordinary, complex and—in important respects—unique. This concluding chapter revisits three key themes that can help structure understanding of the EU: experimentation and change; power sharing and consensus; and scope and capacity. It also returns to the question: how can we best explain the EU and how it works? Finally, the chapter confronts the question: ‘Where do we go from here’? Does knowing how the EU works give clues about how it might work in the future? In light of the COVID-19 pandemic will the EU develop in a more intergovernmental or federal manner? Or will the sort of flexible pragmatism that has helped the EU survive to this point characterize the future?


The EU is extraordinary, complex, and—in important respects—unique. This concluding chapter revisits three key themes first set out in Chapter 1 that help guide our understanding of the EU. In approaching ‘experimention and change’, we review the way in which the EU is in a constant state of evolution in terms of the substance of its policies, their application, and the wider principles of the EU itself. ‘Sharing power and seeking consensus’ sheds light on the ability of the EU to forge internal compromises regarding its decision-making and forms of authority, while its overall ‘scope and capacity’ help us consider areas of strength vs. weakness in our expectations of the EU as an actor, and its capacity to take on new roles while dealing with existing challenges. The chapter then returns to the question: how can we best explain the EU and how it works? Finally, we confront the question: ‘where do we go from here?’ Does knowing how the EU works give us clues about how it might work in the future?

11.1p. 266 Introduction

This book has offered an introduction to how the EU works. A vast body of work has emerged in recent years to satisfy those who wish to know more. Much that has been written about the EU may seem confusing or obfuscatory to the curious non-expert. We—together with our authors—have tried to do better and be clearer. For example, we have focused throughout on how the Union works in practice, not just in theory. We have also illustrated that the EU is not so exceptional that it resists all comparisons. Yet, it does not take much study of the EU before one is struck (or possibly becomes frustrated) by how complex and ever-shifting an entity it seems to be. There are very few analytical ‘bottom lines’ about how the Union works, except that it works quite differently from any other system for deciding—to invoke a classic description of politics—who gets what, when, and how (Lasswell 1936).

The sheer size and complexity of the EU are enough to continue to challenge those who know it well, and indeed work within it, quite apart from students getting to know it for the first time. As this text has attempted to demonstrate, approaching the EU by considering the interaction between its member states, the EU’s institutions (some of which the member states are represented in, others not), and the citizens of the 27 member states (who are also EU citizens) is a good place to start (see section 1.1.1). The national interests of its member states, their relative power, and their ability to form effective coalitions in the Council drive much of what the EU does. However, the supranational institutions—the Commission, the EP, the CJEU, and the ECB (in the context of the Eurozone)—are not passive bystanders: they have their own institutional interests and play a significant role in shaping the agenda and the policies of the EU. All of this takes place in a context of increased visibility and political salience of the EU, meaning that, more than ever, the views and perceptions of individual citizens matter, shaping the boundaries of what is possible in EU politics and policy-making.

11.2 Three Themes

We have offered (section 1.3) three general themes as guides to understanding how the EU works. The first is experimentation and change. The Union refuses to stand still: about the only thing that can be safely predicted about its future is that it is unlikely to remain static for long. The point was illustrated by a clear will to rebound from the shock of Brexit with dramatic moves to upgrade EU defence capabilities and (French-inspired) proposals for more integrated governance of the Eurozone. A Conference on the Future of Europe was finally launched, following the disruption of COVID-19, in April 2021, and is now likely to put forward new proposals for policy and institutional reform in 2022 (see section 10.4.3).

Second, EU governance is an exercise in sharing power between states and institutions. Most of the time, its central goal is to seek consensus across different levels of governance. Getting to ‘yes’ in a system with so many diverse stakeholders often p. 267means resorting to informal methods of reaching agreement, about which the EU’s treaties and official publications are mostly (or entirely) silent.

Third, the gap between the EU’s policy scope and its capacity—between what it is asked to do and what it is equipped to do—has inevitably widened as the Union has evolved over time. The Union has been a remarkable success in many respects. But its future success is by no means assured. We briefly revisit each of these themes below.

11.2.1 Experimentation and change

Every chapter in this book has, from different angles, painted a picture of constant evolution and change. Few would deny that the EU has developed into more than simply an ‘ordinary’ international organization (IO). However, the aspirations of the federalist movement (see Box 1.6) have not been fulfilled and the EU’s development has not been guided by any master plan (Chapter 2). Rather, it has evolved through messy compromises struck after complex political bargaining between member states (Chapter 4), institutions (Chapter 3), and organized interests (Chapter 5). One result is that the EU’s policies—both internal and external (Chapters 7 and 8)—are continually shifting and adapting, often in a more incremental and slow-paced way that they ideally would.

Beyond individual policy instruments, incremental change can be seen as a characteristic of the EU’s institutional development. Radical reform proposals tend to be scaled back in a system with so many different interests to satisfy. The unsuccessful attempt to establish a constitution for the EU proves the point: the Lisbon Treaty carried forward most of the institutional changes contained in the Constitutional Treaty while stripping out references to a constitution, an EU flag, anthem, and the provocative designation ‘EU minister for foreign affairs’ (renamed, in the EU’s familiar jargon, ‘high representative’). For some, the Constitutional Treaty simply went too far, at least in terms of symbolism—words matter very much in the process of European integration because words invoke certain ideas and, constructivists argue, ideas shape preferences thereby enabling or constraining political and public policy choices (see Box 11.1). Similarly, efforts thus far to reform the institutional structure of the EU in light of the Eurozone crisis took several years to crystallize and represented a compromise between disparate national interests that many consider to be insufficient to protect against future crises.

Box 11.1 What’s in a name?

The terms used to refer to the EU’s artefacts often stir up controversy. A word can have different connotations in different languages or cultural contexts. Examples include:

Assembly or Parliament? The designation of a European ‘Parliament’ was initially a term too far. The drafters of the original treaties prudently used the term ‘Assembly’. The Assembly decided to call itself a Parliament in the early 1960s. For a long time, some governments strictly avoided the term. However, in 1986, they agreed to amend the treaty to include the name European Parliament.

Commission or executive? Although many saw the Commission as an embryonic European government when what is now the EU was created, others did not. The authors of the treaty shied away from even describing it as an executive. In French, it is often referred to as the Commission exécutive to distinguish it from a Commission parlementaire, which is the French term for a parliamentary committee.

Constitution or treaty? The treaties are sometimes described as the EU’s constitution, in that they lay down the EU’s field of competence, the powers of its institutions and how the latter’s members are elected or appointed. The CJEU has itself referred to them as a constitutional charter. However, the attempt to replace the treaties by a single text formally described as a Constitution fell in 2005 when it failed to be ratified by France and the Netherlands. Arguments about that term featured in Dutch pre-referendum debates. Member states instead agreed to amend the existing treaties without formally labelling them as a constitution.

Federal or supranational? The Schuman declaration, the basis for establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, referred to the ECSC as the first step towards a European federation. But this definition of the finalité of the Union has always been controversial. Definitions of ‘federal’ are highly divergent. The term supranational emerged instead.

Foreign minister or high representative? The merged post of HR/VP was originally described as the EU minister for foreign affairs in the unratified Constitutional Treaty. The term was dropped in the Lisbon Treaty, although it is still used informally in Brussels.

Representative or ambassador? The heads of the EU’s representations in third countries have ambassadorial status, and are commonly referred to as ambassadors, though they are officially just representatives.

Why ‘president’? The EU gives the title ‘president’ to all kinds of functions that might have been named otherwise—at least in English. For Anglophones, it might make more sense to use ‘speaker’ of the Parliament, ‘governor’ of the Central Bank, ‘chair’ of the Council—and how about ‘prime commissioner’?

p. 268However, apparently unexceptional acts of fine-tuning, such as slightly increasing the EP’s power or sending an encouraging political signal to an applicant state, can sometimes gather momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill. Moreover, the EU’s potential for fundamental change—illustrated by the launch of the single currency, the creation of emergency loan facilities to struggling members of the Eurozone, or the decision by the EU-27 to allow the EU to borrow up to €750 billion in the capital markets to support the EU’s recovery from COVID-19—cannot be denied. Perhaps because the EU is such a young political system, it is sometimes surprisingly easy to innovate. Yet, the EU’s usual mode of relying on compromises p. 269and incremental, modest changes can often appear inadequate in the face of challenges on the scale of the six listed in Chapter 1.

The more general point is that the EU has long been described as a fundamentally experimental union (see Laffan et al. 2000). Nobody argues that it always works like a smooth, well-oiled machine. The EU has also become far more difficult to shift in any particular direction since its membership more than doubled in the space of just over a decade (see Chapters 4 and 9). Equally, almost no one denies that as a political entity, the EU is remarkably successful in coaxing cooperative, collective action out of sovereign states that regularly, almost routinely, went to war with each other a few generations ago. Increasingly, the Union is seen as a model or laboratory worthy, in some respects, of mimicry by other regional organizations in other parts of the world (Brown 2017).

11.2.2 Sharing power and seeking consensus

A second theme that cannot be avoided when studying the EU is that power is distributed widely—between states, institutions, and organized interests. At the same time, consensus and compromise in putting that authority to work are highly valued. Enormous efforts are often required to strike agreements that are acceptable to all who have a slice of the power required to determine outcomes. Simply being able to agree is often viewed as an achievement in itself. Once sealed, EU agreements are almost always portrayed as positive sum—that is, bringing greater good to a greater number of citizens than did the previous policy. Of course, nearly every policy creates losers as well as winners. But the perceived need to preserve support within, and on behalf of, ‘the Brussels system’ means that heroic attempts are often made to avoid creating clear losers.

As such, coming to grips with how the EU works does not just mean mastering the treaties. The formal powers of institutions and member states, and formal rules of policy-making, are not unimportant; they are, after all, the rulebook by which the EU formally operates. But these rules and procedures do not to tell the full story, because—as explored—a whole range of informal understandings, modes, and norms are crucial in determining outcomes. Most of our investigations of ‘how it really works’ have highlighted the importance of unwritten rules that have emerged over time and through practice, almost organically—as opposed to being mandated in formal or legal terms. These rules and norms are then learned and internalized by EU policy-makers. For example, it is widely accepted in Brussels that formal votes in the Council should be avoided when possible, even if they have become more common—perhaps more necessary—in a radically enlarged Union. Still, the idea that consensus should be sought wherever possible, and that long negotiations and manifold compromises are an acceptable price to pay for it, is powerfully engrained. These norms often matter far more than what the treaties say about which state has how many votes, what constitutes a qualified majority, or where QMV applies and where it does not.

p. 270The post-2004 enlargements suggested that representatives of new states learn the rules of the game quite quickly. New EU member states were, for instance, able to lend their weight to a broad alliance supporting measures to facilitate cross-border provision of services in 2006—not by threatening a blocking minority, but by constructively arguing their case. More recently, questions have arisen about some member states who joined the EU most recently—with Hungary and Poland posing a challenge to the fundamental values of the EU (see section 6.4). Joined by Slovakia and the Czech Republic—thus constituting the Visegrad-4 (see Box 4.7)—these states can often play a blocking role on issues around migration and refugees, and the EU’s policy stance towards authoritarian regimes around the world (see Woertz and Soler-i-Lecha 2020).

The EU is a uniquely multi-level system of governance. Rarely does one institution or member state, or alliance thereof, offer consistent or decisive political direction. Instead, grand bargains to agree quasi-constitutional change, as well as many more mundane agreements, result from a unique kind of power sharing across levels of governance, as well as between EU institutions and member states. What makes the Union unique is its diversity and mix of actors (regional, national, and supranational, public and private), the wide dispersal of power among them, and the need always to try to increase the number of ‘winners’.

11.2.3 Scope and capacity

Third, we have suggested that the EU’s scope—both in terms of policy remit and constituent states—has grown much faster than its capacity to manage the tasks conferred upon it. In the context of EU foreign policy, Hill (1993) labelled this a ‘capability-expectations gap’, but the phrase might equally be applied to the EU’s internal policies. Chapter 7 outlined the uneven yet unmistakable expansion of EU policy responsibilities. Chapter 8 showed how the EU has evolved, almost by stealth, into a global power. Chapter 9 focused on why, and with what consequences, the Union has continued to enlarge its membership and tried to improve its relations with countries in its near-abroad.

With no agreed upon ‘end goal’, the Union has in the past regularly taken on new tasks and members, but without a concomitant increase in capacity, or tools and resources to perform its designated tasks. For instance, Chapter 3 highlighted the institutional limits of the EU. Can the Commission, equivalent in size to the administration of a medium-sized European city, manage an ever larger and more ambitious Union? Can 27 (perhaps more in the future) ministers sit around the Council table and have a meaningful negotiation? Is the EU budget—even after the development of the NGEU COVID-recovery fund—sufficient to achieve what is demanded of it? Can the Eurozone economy work with monetary powers but without (much) pooled fiscal capacity? Can you run a common foreign policy on the basis of unanimous decision-taking with 27 vetoes?

The gap between scope and capacity (institutional and political) therefore raises important questions about the Union’s future. It seems risky to assume that the EU can continue to take on ever more tasks and member states (or even keep its p. 271existing ones), while retaining its status as the most successful experiment in international cooperation in modern history.

11.3 Explaining the EU

While seeking above all to describe how the EU works, we have also introduced—and tried to demystify—debates about what are the most important forces driving EU politics. Just as there is no consensus on the desirability of European integration, there is no single consensus about what is most important about it. Social scientists disagree about what it is about the EU that most needs to be explained. The position they take on this question usually reflects their own approach to understanding the EU: as a federation in the making? As an IO? A polity in its own right? A source of constructed identity? Or as a factory for public policies?

As indicated throughout the text, the process of European integration has generated a wealth of academic analysis. What is striking is the diversity of approaches and conclusions. It is also striking that different theories have ebbed and flowed as the EU itself has undergone different phases in its history. Perceptions also vary according to national, cultural, and/or political backgrounds and predispositions, and it is not only politicians who write in a way that colours reality with their own hopes and expectations. It has been noted that lawyers tend to focus on the EU’s legal system, with its several supranational features, while political scientists tend to focus on the EU’s decision-making procedures and the interactions among national governments and between those governments and the EU’s institutions. A similar trap awaits those who specialize in a particular aspect of the EU: an analysis of competition policy, with the dominant role in this area of the Commission, can produce a different impression from the study of EU foreign and security policy, dominated by the member states. Donald Puchala’s (1971) analogy of blind men feeling an elephant and reaching different conclusions according to whether they are holding its trunk, touching its tail, or feeling its body is a telling one.

We have also seen how various theories can help us frame interesting questions in relation to what the EU is, and what it does, helping us to decide what evidence is needed to answer them. If, for example, it is accepted that the EU is exceptionally complex, then it stands to reason that there may be no one single ‘best’ theory of EU politics. What a former Commission President, Jacques Delors, referred to as an ‘unidentified political object’, the EU somewhat resembles other IOs such as NATO or the UN; for others, the EU may seem akin to federal states—such as Germany and Canada. Equally, its policy-making system—featuring organized interest groups and complex resource exchange in tightly structured policy networks concentrated in Brussels—resembles systems found in Washington, DC, London, Paris, and most national capitals, while matching none of them precisely. It makes sense in the circumstances to approach the EU with a well-stocked toolkit of theoretical approaches, and to be clear about what each highlights as most important in determining how it really works (see section 1.2).

11.4p. 272 Where Do We Go from Here?

When we ponder where the EU may be headed, we must remember where it has been. For nearly 25 years the Union has been preparing, negotiating, or ratifying a new treaty, modifying its basic treaties five times between 1985 and 2009, each with multiple amendments to the basic treaties. By way of comparison, the US Constitution has been subject to fewer than thirty amendments over more than 225 years. Agreeing to reform the EU’s institutions, disagreeing on some of the details, but agreeing to try to agree again in a future IGC became routine.

After the lengthy process that led to the last of these, the Lisbon Treaty, which finally entered into force in 2009, the member states shied away from revisions of the treaties. None the less, the Eurozone crisis—especially after its most concentrated phase in 2010–12—triggered a flurry of activity by member states and EU institutions on monetary policy, fiscal policy coordination, and banking union, with smaller, focused treaty changes and a separate ‘fiscal compact’ treaty in 2012 (see section 7.5.1). The economic impact of the Eurozone crisis continues to pose a challenge to the Union and its members, and the policy responses to that challenge have, in themselves, triggered disagreements among member states, as have other issues such as the refugee crisis and how to handle burden-sharing across the EU, how to respond to a rising, increasingly assertive, and increasingly authoritarian China, and how to tackle ‘democratic backsliding’ among member states. Against this backdrop, where does the EU go from here?

11.4.1 Debating the future of Europe

Sometimes it seems as if a debate on the future of the EU is ‘much of the same old’. The debates of the 1950s dealt with many of the same challenges that Europe faces today. Institutional reform, enlargement, policy remit, money, and external policy have always been on the EU agenda. Each of the changes over the past 50 years might seem incremental in the short term. However, accumulated changes over time have transformed the EU from a small club with a limited policy arsenal, separate currencies, and no foreign policy, to an institutional powerhouse of 27 members, a plethora of policies, a single currency (for 19 of the EU-27), and an important role in world politics. Recent years have brought a host of new themes to the European agenda, reflecting new global challenges. Peace, prosperity, and security remain the cornerstones of integration. But the agenda has shifted markedly towards economic reform and climate change, in a context of shifting public attitudes and a shifting global balance of power.

On economic reform, simple solutions are difficult because a larger EU is far more economically diverse than before, and Europe was hit hard by the post-2008 global recession—the ramifications of which were still being worked through when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. On the other hand, there were signs of fresh life in the integration process in the second decade of the 2000s, with EU measures facilitating cross-border provision of services, fresh efforts to extend the single market, p. 273and significant institutional reform to the Eurozone. Nevertheless, that decade was mostly dominated by the EU’s response to successive crises—the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, a refugee crisis stemming from severe political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, a decision by a member state to leave the EU (Brexit), Donald Trump’s term as US President, the erosion of democratic standards within the EU, and a global pandemic (Box 11.2).

Box 11.2 Spotlight on: A crisis-ification of the EU?

This text began (Chapter 1) by setting out the challenge of ‘Studying the EU’, and suggesting that major crises serve as signposts that reveal much about how the EU works and who are its most important players. The past decade (or so) has been replete with crises, leading some to suggest a crisis-ification of the EU and its policy-making process (Rhinard 2019). Moments of crisis tend to empower the European Council, and often the more powerful member states.

Beneath the water-line, policy-making is increasingly driven by a concern to identify the next urgent crisis before it materializes, as well as a need to take decisions at a (more) rapid pace—as opposed to ‘the traditional methods of producing collective EU decisions, typified by the extensive analysis of a particular problem, long phases of consultation with key stakeholders, the deliberative cultivation of support for proposals, episodic decision-making moments and a focus on long-term implementation’ (Rhinard 2019: 616). This results in new policy networks (in addition to those long established) between Commission officials and officials in the member states, engaged in an almost constant task of monitoring crisis indicators and early-warning systems as part of around 70 rapid alert systems that have been set up. The Council also has crisis planning and response units in its General-Secretariat. Crisis-ification has not supplanted ‘traditional forms of policy-making in the EU’, but ‘it now stands alongside them’ as something new and distinctive (Rhinard 2019: 629).

On climate change, the Union took a global lead by pledging in the context of the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse emissions by 40 per cent (calculated from 1990 levels) by the year 2030 and encouraging the rest of the industrialized world to follow its lead. It played a key role in the brokering of that agreement, having been marginalized at a previous round of negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. Its implementation through a ‘European Green Deal’ is the central feature of the programme of the von der Leyen Commission, aiming to go beyond the Paris pledge and achieve at least a 50 per cent reduction by 2030 and full climate neutrality by 2050. A mixture of switching to renewables and improved energy efficiency will achieve this. EU legislation, budget, research programmes, and trade policy will all be deployed, and member states are required to prepare national plans deploying measures within their own competence. It represents a strong sense of common purpose for the next decades, although the costs associated with such reductions raise tensions between richer and poorer member states (and between richer and p. 274poorer citizens in all member states). Climate change scepticism, and opposition to climate policies, are an increasing focus of right-wing-populist parties in Europe (see Kulin et al. 2021).

A broader challenge is posed by right- and left-wing populism across the EU’s member states, which acts as a constraint on policy action and also—given that populist parties are typically eurosceptic—on the further development of the EU. They are a potent—albeit minority—force across many member states and in the EP, with particularly strong bases in powerful (and founding) member states such as France and Italy, both of which report high levels of public dissatisfaction with the EU. The current governments in Hungary and Poland, despite challenging the foundational values of the EU, represent populations, a majority of whom are broadly supportive of the EU. National elections from 2022 onwards represent a minefield for the EU, with the possibility of strongly eurosceptic voices sitting around the highest table in Brussels—that of the European Council.

All of that will unfold amidst a shifting global balance of power. The Biden presidency represents a return to something resembling normality following four years of Donald Trump. However, China’s increasingly assertive and authoritarian turn poses challenges for the EU and the US (see Hillman 2020). Chinese investment in European infrastructure is a source of policy disagreement among the EU’s member states, some welcoming it and others seeing it as a national security threat. This makes it difficult for the EU collectively to speak with one voice when it comes to China, which in turn complicates its partnership with a US that seeks to contain the rise of Chinese economic and military power. As such, the 21st century looks set to be shaped by the strategic rivalry of the US and China. The EU will have to walk a tightrope between maintaining its alliance with the US, trading with and developing constructive relations with China, and challenging China’s anti-democratic practices (a task made more difficult by ‘democratic backsliding’ within the EU).

11.4.2 How will it work?

We conclude with a few thoughts—not ‘predictions’—about how the Union may evolve in the years to come. We have seen that there is no shortage of controversy about what is most important in determining how the EU really works. It will—as it always has been—remain a hybrid of:


the intergovernmental;


the (quasi)-federal; and


the pragmatic.

Had the member states wanted a more intergovernmental EU, then the Lisbon Treaty might well have seen a repatriation of competences, a weakening of the Commission and the EP, and a return to unanimous decision-making—and perhaps more decisions taken outside the institutional framework. The outcome was largely the opposite. The Lisbon Treaty extended QMV to some 30 new areas of policy. p. 275The pillar structure was eliminated. The EU was given a legal personality and its key institutions were strengthened. All member states realized that if the EU wanted to be a serious player on the international scene, strict intergovernmentalism was not an option. Yet, the subsequent response to the Eurozone crisis saw member states—particularly Germany—oppose measures such as eurobonds or even a bigger EU budget. It also saw countries flout agreed EU rules, from France submitting budgets that violated the SGP, to Poland and Hungary ignoring decisions on quotas for hosting refugees. So, while agreeing moves away from intergovernmentalism, member states are still assertive when they want to be.

A commitment to a more federal Europe might have meant the adoption of something closer in form to the Constitutional Treaty, including symbols such as an anthem and flag. But a fully federal EU would mean going beyond the Constitutional Treaty and giving the Union wider competences, not least in defence, a common army, and a much bigger budget. The Lisbon Treaty did not do that. Put simply, most member governments and their publics (as postfunctionalism reminds us) remain unwilling to take a quantum leap to a federal state. The French and Dutch rejections of the Constitutional Treaty, and the UK’s decision to leave the EU, are powerful illustrations of that. Still, the history of the Union shows there can be aspects of federalism without a full federation. The euro and ECB are nothing if not federal elements, as is the EU’s bicameral legislature and the primacy of EU law.

It is perhaps most likely that the EU will continue using a pragmatic (and flexible) way of working. That is, in essence, what the Lisbon Treaty envisaged. Pragmatism favours continuity with incremental rather than radical change in European integration; it embraces a largely functional path of integration, which is utilitarian rather than decorative or symbolic. Pragmatic approaches largely accept that the EU does not yet (and may never) operate in most core areas of social policy and that tax-raising powers are predominantly national. It also accepts that the Community method of decision-making, with powers shared between the EU’s institutions, is inappropriate (at least initially) for some areas where European cooperation makes sense, including defence. But a pragmatic approach will also recognize that the European institutions are key components of the overall structure, and are required even in some important areas representing ‘core state powers’—as the response to the Eurozone crisis demonstrated.

p. 276Pragmatism accepts a ‘two-tier Europe’ in some areas of policy. As in the cases of Schengen or the Eurozone, some EU states may forge ahead with cooperative agreements that others choose not to support, on the understanding that outsiders might become insiders later on (see Box 11.3) However, while accepting the necessity of exceptional arrangements, a pragmatic approach prefers cooperation extending to all EU members and preferably based on the institutional triangle between the Commission, Council, and EP—with the CJEU adjudicating disputes between them. That institutional set-up is the one that has dominated since the p. 277earliest stages of European integration in the 1950s. It will surely live on in the EU of the future—with some tweaks to accommodate member state diversity—simply because, in the past, it has worked: most say reasonably, and some say remarkably, even if a minority says not at all.

Box 11.3 How it really works: ‘Ever closer Union’ or ‘ever more differentiation’?

Debates about a ‘two-speed Europe’, a vanguard of countries that integrate further, abound. The holding of Eurozone summits and the establishment of a fiscal compact, in which, the UK (and, initially, the Czech Republic) did not participate, gave a new impetus to such discussions. Reality is more complex than the label ‘two-speed Europe’ would suggest. In practice, a striking variety of speeds and configurations exist (see Chapter 4).

Member states1 that do not (or not yet) participate in:

the euro (eight): Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary (but, outside the EU, Montenegro and Kosovo use it unilaterally);

Schengen (five): Ireland, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria (but, outside the EU, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland are in it);

certain security and justice measures (two): Denmark and Ireland;

defence cooperation (one): Denmark;

the single market as regards secondary residencies on its territory: (one) Denmark;

the unified EU patent court (two): Spain and Croatia;

divorce law cooperation (10): Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Rep, Slovakia, Hungary, Ireland, and Cyprus;

the legislation on the property regime applicable to international couples (nine): Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ireland;

the European public prosecutor (five): Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, and Ireland;

exemption from the primacy of EU law regarding anything affecting abortion (one): Ireland.

Thus, we do not find any group of specifically slow states, nor an avant-garde group of leading member states. Instead, there is a variety of arrière-gardes (‘rear-guards’), in each case rather small and with different configurations, sometimes a single country. The general unity of the Union remains largely intact and all member states participate in the core features of the customs union and internal market with the significant volume of common legislation and policies they entail. But the tension between the ideal of uniformity and the reality of diversity among the 27 member states will persist—it is part of the nature of the EU.

11.5 Conclusion

The reality of European integration is naturally more complex than any of the models, concepts, or theories we have introduced in this book. To study the EU is to be comfortable with looking at it through multiple lenses. To repeat an analogy from earlier in the book—sometimes, much like at an optician’s, it helps to layer one lens on top of the other to bring the reality of the EU into clearer focus, rather than squinting harder through the first lens you are offered. The EU has always been a combination of models—a hybrid. It is more than an ordinary IO, but less than a state. It is likely always to be a multi-level system in which the supranational, national, and subnational (regional) co-exist. It is a unique and original way of organizing cooperation between states, whose governments (if not always their citizens) genuinely see themselves as members of a political union. The EU of the future will probably remain an experimental system, always in flux, with plenty of scope to be reformed and competing ideas about how to do it. It will continue to be, above all, an exercise in seeking consensus and trying to achieve unity, where it makes sense, out of enormous diversity. We can rest assured that how it really works will never match one vision of how it should work.


  • 1 When it was a member state, the UK did not participate in the euro, Schengen, some security and justice measures, nor in the European public prosecutor.

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