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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. 31. Introductionlocked

p. 31. Introductionlocked

  • Daniel Kenealy,
  • Amelia Hadfield
  •  and Richard Corbett


This chapter discusses the practical and analytical reasons for studying the EU. It presents the EU as a complex and innovative political entity, comprising its member states, its institutions, and its citizens. The chapter presents some of the key theoretical and conceptual approaches to understanding how the EU has developed historically and how it works today. Furthermore, it outlines three broad themes that help the reader make sense of the EU: experimentation and change; power sharing and consensus; and scope and capacity. Finally, it provides an overview of the chapters that follow, which cover topics ranging from an historical overview of the EU’s development to its institutional architecture, from its policy-making process to its democratic credentials, from its key internal policies to its growing role as an actor on the global stage.


The EU is not easy to understand. Yet it is well worth the effort, given the importance of the Union to the everyday lives of almost 450 million EU citizens, and many more beyond its borders. This introductory chapter outlines the practical and analytical reasons for studying the EU. It then introduces some of the main conceptual approaches to understanding this unique and often baffling organization, how it functions, and why. Finally, the chapter sets out three broad themes that will tie together our analysis of the EU and how it works.

1.1p. 4 Introduction

The development of the EU has been a remarkable feature of European history for the last 70 years. Within a few years of World War II’s end, six Western European countries decided to pool their coal and steel production—at the time two of the most significant industries required to forge war. The six went on to form an economic community with the aim of creating a single market (sometimes called a common market or the internal market) in which goods, labour, services, and capital could circulate freely across national borders (see Box 1.1). Over successive decades that project of European integration (Box 1.2) became the EU of today, comprising 27 member states (EU-27), including three that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The policy competences of the EU have expanded enormously since its establishment to cover regional, environmental, social, migration, foreign, and security policy, and 19 of the 27 member states have given up their own, independent currencies—long considered a hallmark of sovereignty (Box 1.2)—and adopted a common currency: the euro. As such, the EU has a profound impact on the daily lives of around 450 million people.

Box 1.1 What’s in a name?

Even the question of what to call the EU can cause confusion. What became the European Union was originally established as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, followed by the (more expansive) European Economic Community (EEC, colloquially known as the single market, and sometimes called the common market, or internal market) by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The year 1957 also saw the establishment of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

In 1965 the executive institutions of all three organizations—the ECSC, Euratom, and the EEC—were unified. The three organizations were collectively referred to as the European Communities (EC) until the Maastricht Treaty came into effect on 1 November 1993. Maastricht created the EU, which was made up of three pillars. The EC became the first pillar of that new structure. Alongside it stood two other ‘pillars’ of cooperation in the areas of foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs (later renamed as police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters).

Those three pillars of the EU existed until the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009. The Lisbon Treaty merged the pillars into a single legal entity, which kept the name the European Union. Throughout this text, we use the label European Community (or EC) to refer to the organization in the pre-Maastricht period (especially in Chapter 2), but European Union (or EU) to refer to all periods—and the activities of all pillars—thereafter. As we will see, vocabulary in the EU can be a sensitive matter (see Box 11.1).

1.1.1 What is the EU?

The EU is, in many respects, one of the most successful efforts in international cooperation in modern history and stands as a unique entity in contemporary global politics. Partly because it is such a unique entity, the EU is not easy to grasp. Before p. 5addressing questions such as ‘How does the EU work?’ or ‘What does the EU do?’ it is important to ask a more fundamental question, namely: ‘What is the EU?’ It is more than an international organization but less than a state and yet it shares some of the characteristics of both.

A way to start thinking about the EU involves three things familiar to students of politics: States, Institutions, and Citizens (see Van Middelaar 2013). The EU is a unique combination of the three. It was born of a desire by six states—France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—to cooperate internationally in specific policy areas. It thus began as an exercise in diplomacy and it remains, to this day, a system for conducting and managing international relations (IR) between (now 27) states. To facilitate that cooperation, the states set up institutions. Of course, there are numerous international institutions around the world tasked with facilitating cooperation between states on a range of issues from monetary policy to trade, from cross-border crime to climate change. The EU’s institutions are uniquely configured, however, mixing two different types of governance arrangements that can be placed at opposite ends of a continuum: intergovernmentalism and supranationalism (Box 1.2).

Box 1.2 Key concepts and terms

The Community method is a decision-making procedure in the EU based on the interplay of three institutions—the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council (of ministers). It involves the Commission introducing legislative initiatives, the Council deciding (by qualified majority in most votes), and the Parliament co-legislating with the Council (or at least being consulted).

European integration is the process whereby sovereign states pool national sovereignty to maximize their collective power and interests.

Euroscepticism can be defined broadly as negative attitudes about the EU (people holding such attitudes are eurosceptics). Scholars often distinguish between ‘soft’ eurosceptics, who want to see the powers of the EU reduced and for the EU to be more intergovernmental, and ‘hard’ eurosceptics who are more staunchly opposed to European integration, often wanting their state to leave the EU, or—in an especially ‘hard’ form—for the EU to collapse entirely.

Globalization is the idea that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent because of increasing flows of trade, technology, ideas, people, and capital. Globalization is usually presented as reducing the autonomy of individual states, although whether its impact is essentially positive or negative, inevitable or controllable, are hotly debated questions (see Colomer and Beale 2020).

Governance means ‘established patterns of rule without an overall ruler’. Even though it has no explicit government, the EU undertakes the sort of activities that have traditionally been the responsibility of governments. The EU is thus said to be a system of governance without a government.

Intergovernmentalism is a process or condition whereby decisions are reached by specifically defined cooperation between or among governments (see Moravcsik 1998). Formally, at least, sovereignty is not pooled or relinquished. The term intergovernmentalism is usually contrasted with supranationalism.

Legitimacy refers to the right to rule and make political decisions and the acceptance of that right by the people subject to it.

Multi-level governance is often used to describe the EU. It means a system in which power is shared between the supranational, national, and subnational levels. The term also suggests there is significant interaction and coordination of political actors across those levels. How they interact and with what effect helps determine the shape of European integration (see Hooghe and Marks 2001; Jeffery and Peterson 2020).

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a military alliance between 30 states in Europe and North America. Formed in the aftermath of World War II, at its core is a collective defence arrangement whereby an armed attack on any member is considered an attack on all. It has been the bedrock of European military security since 1949.

Sovereignty refers to the ultimate authority over people and territory. It is sometimes broken down into internal (law-making authority within a territory) and external (international recognition) sovereignty (see Krasner 1999). Opinions vary on whether state sovereignty is ‘surrendered’ to, or merely ‘shared’ or ‘pooled’ in the EU.

Supranationalism means above states or nations. Processes or institutions that are largely (but never entirely) independent of national governments make key decisions. The subject governments (in the case of the EU, the member state governments) are then obliged to accept these decisions. Supranationalism is usually contrasted with intergovernmentalism.

p. 6Intergovernmentalism involves states ‘in situations and conditions they control, cooperating with one another on matters of common interest’ (Nugent 2017: 475). In its purest form, this would involve each state holding a veto, which would ensure that no state would find itself being bound by decisions with which it did not agree. Supranationalism takes IR ‘beyond mere cooperation into integration’ (Nugent 2017: 475). Supranational arrangements involve majority decision-making—where states might have to follow rules and accept decisions that they oppose—and a clear transfer of decision-making authority from the national level to the international level.

It is important to emphasize that these are ideal types of governance arrangement. In other words, the institutions of the EU are neither purely supranational nor purely intergovernmental (see Box 1.3). Some, for example, the European Commission, are more supranational in nature. Others, for example, the Council (of ministers), are more intergovernmental. The EU as a whole, therefore, sits on the continuum between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism. There are times when it may appear to be working more intergovernmentally—with powerful states driving forward their policy preferences and convincing weaker states to go p. 7along—and times when it may appear to be working more supranationally, with institutions such as the Commission driving events. To study the EU requires being comfortable with the co-existence of these two types of governance. The EU never fully settles into one or the other—they exist in a perpetual state of (mostly creative and constructive) tension.

Box 1.3 Spotlight on: The EU’s institutions

The phrase sui generis (a Latin phrase meaning ‘of its own kind’, or unique) is often used to describe the EU. Insofar as the institutional architecture of the EU is unique, the phrase is appropriate. However, the EU is studied by scholars of IR, Comparative Politics, and Public Policy, reflecting the reality that, although the architecture is unique, much of what happens in the EU—negotiation, bargaining, interinstitutional relations, policy development, lobbying, the enforcement of laws and regulations—is familiar to students of all political systems. Nevertheless, that unique institutional architecture is one of the most important aspects to grasp about the EU. The institutions are discussed in depth in Chapter 3. The six principal institutions of the EU are:

The European Council brings together the 27 heads of state or government (for example, the French president, the German chancellor) and sets the agenda for the EU at the highest political level;

Ministers from the 27 member states of the EU meet regularly and advance their interests through the Council (of ministers) (or simply ‘the Council’);

The European Commission is the executive institution tasked with making proposals in the general interest of the EU, and administering agreed policies. Commissioners are appointed by the member states but subject to European Parliament approval;

Elected politicians in the European Parliament—the only directly elected supranational parliament in the world—represent the citizens of the EU;

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) settles legal disputes, upholds the rule of law, and protects the rights of EU citizens;

The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the 19 EU member states that have adopted the euro as their currency (forming the Eurozone).

The powers and responsibilities of the institutions are set out in the EU’s treaties, which are the foundation for everything the EU does (Box 1.7).

The concepts of supranationalism, intergovernmentalism, and national sovereignty are closely entwined when we think about the EU. The relationship of sovereignty to the two types of governance is complicated. It might appear, at face value, that the more supranational the system, the more sovereignty is ‘lost’ by states and, conversely, the more intergovernmental the system, the more sovereignty is retained. However, sovereignty is something to be exercised, or used. A decision by a state p. 8to enter into a highly institutionalized form of cooperation with other states—involving the deep integration of their economies—might appear, to some, to represent a giving up (or loss) of sovereignty. Others would look at the decision as an exercising of sovereignty for a common purpose—hence the idea of EU member states ‘pooling’ their sovereignty, rather than ‘losing it’. The debate about national sovereignty in the context of European integration is unlikely to go away. It is a lightning rod for eurosceptic (Box 1.2) political parties.

The tensions and relationships between the member states and the EU’s institutions drive much of what the EU does, as we will see throughout this book. However, as a final point of introduction, it is important to remember that everyone holding citizenship of an EU member state is also a citizen of the EU, a status that was formally created on 1 November 1993 in a revision of the EU’s founding treaties (see Box 1.7). This is a unique feature of the EU. No other supranational or international organization in the world confers citizenship rights on people. EU citizenship may be a secondary status—deriving from national citizenship of an EU member state—but it confers meaningful rights on nearly 450 million people, rights that are enforceable and can be invoked before the CJEU. Those citizens vote every five years in elections to the only directly elected supranational assembly in the world, the European Parliament.

The consent of those citizens to the EU as a system of governance is vital for the EU’s democratic legitimacy (Box 1.2). The expansion of EU competences over time—especially into areas traditionally seen as the responsibility of elected national governments (or ‘core state powers’)—has meant that debates about European integration have become wrapped up in larger political debates. The permissive consensus on the part of most citizens, which characterized earlier periods of integration—at a time when the policies of the (then) EC (see Box 1.1) were largely technical and low-key—has given way to a constraining dissensus as the (now) EU’s power and influence are apparent in more sensitive, visible, and high-profile policy areas (Hooghe and Marks 2009). To study the EU is thus to study a lot more than its institutions and their operations. Studying European integration means posing questions about legitimacy, democracy, law, state–society relations, the interdependence of nation states, the role and power of bureaucracies, and much more.

A Union of 27 member states. A Union comprising six principal institutions, two consultative bodies with legal status, an External Action Service, an Investment Bank, and a clutch of agencies. And a Union of almost 450 million citizens, each with their own opinions and attitudes about how it should evolve. The development of the EU is shaped by a large and diverse number of players, including powerful states—such as the US and China—and powerful corporate interests beyond its borders.

The 2020s are an especially interesting (and challenging) time to study the EU as it struggles with the impact of six interrelated crises that have developed since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007–8 (Riddervold et al. 2021). That crisis brought daily turmoil and a sovereign debt crisis to the Eurozone during much p. 9of 2010–12 (Caporaso and Rhodes 2016). Second, events in North Africa and the Middle East produced a refugee crisis that EU member states struggled to deal with throughout 2015–16 (Niemann and Zaunn 2018). Third came the UK’s vote to leave the EU (‘Brexit’—see section 10.2), which was a symbolic and material blow to the EU’s prestige and power. Fourth, the election of Donald Trump as President of the US—with his unpredictable foreign policy and questioning of the US security guarantee to Europe via NATO (Box 1.2)—presented significant new internal and external challenges to the EU during 2017–20 (Aggestam and Hyde-Price 2019). Fifth, and rumbling in the background since 2012, the EU has faced what some call a ‘values crisis’, as governments in Hungary and Poland passed legislation and enacted policies that undermined some of the bedrock principles of the EU, such as the rule of law and the independence of judges and courts (Kelemen 2020). Finally, in 2020, a global pandemic posed major economic and public health challenges to the EU. Put simply, the period represented one of—maybe even the—most challenging time(s) in the history of European integration.

1.1.2 Why does it matter?

Although understanding the EU is a daunting intellectual challenge, there are (at least) three reasons why it has major pay-offs. First, on a practical level, no one can make sense of European politics without understanding an organization that has daily and powerful effects on European (and non-European) governments, markets, and citizens (see Box 1.4). The way the Union works often lacks political drama. Yet, the EU is responsible for practical, everyday things that make a tangible difference to European citizens, such as a cap on mobile roaming charges and a right to compensation when airline flights are delayed or cancelled. At the more dramatic end of the policy spectrum, the EU has played a leading role over recent years in international action on climate change, fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa, and in international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme.

Box 1.4 Spotlight on: The practical significance of the EU

The EU’s practical impact is felt in a wide range of areas including:

Market: The EU has created and manages the world’s largest market, including nearly half a billion people—the world’s third largest population after China and India.

Legislation: It is not easy to measure and estimates vary, but in most years something between 6 and 35 per cent of the domestic legislation enacted by the Union’s member states originates from EU legislation, mostly, but by no means entirely, common rules for the single market. Many third-party countries also apply those rules.

Currency: In 2002, 12 national currencies—some dating back 600 years—were replaced by the euro. As of 2021, 19 EU countries and around 340 million consumers used this single currency, as do six small non-EU countries with a further three million people.

Wealth: The EU-27’s combined gross national income comprised 18 per cent of the total world national income (as of 2019).

Trade: Not counting intra-EU trade, the EU-27’s share of world exports and imports accounts for around 15 per cent of all global trade.

Aid: The EU-27 and its member states are the world’s largest donors of development aid, accounting for around 42 per cent of all such aid globally (as of 2019).

p. 10Second, as the most advanced modern experiment in international cooperation, the EU is important analytically. Understanding the EU helps us frame questions about the future of the nation state, the prospects for international cooperation, the effects of globalization (Box 1.2), and the role of governments in advanced industrial societies. The broad dynamics of globalization also entrench the EU’s power. Given that the EU represents around 15 per cent of the global economy, its market regulations have significant power beyond its borders as state and private actors around the world often copy or adapt EU standards because they want to sell into the large and deep EU market—this has been called ‘the Brussels effect’ (Bradford 2020).

Third, the EU is a political puzzle. On one hand, EU governments and institutions have transformed it from a market of six countries into a peaceful, integrated Union of 27 states, with its own currency, a fledgling foreign policy, and a queue of applicant states. Yet a significant minority of citizens appear disillusioned with the EU. In 2005, citizens in two founding member states—France and the Netherlands—rejected a Constitutional Treaty designed to make the EU more efficient and bring it closer to its citizens (see Box 1.5). At the height of the Eurozone crisis, Eurobarometer—a public attitudes survey conducted regularly on behalf of the EU—reported that fewer than half of people across the EU (47 per cent of respondents) felt that their country’s membership of the EU was ‘a good thing’. Reported levels of trust in the EU also fell during this period to a low of around 30 per cent, although the global financial crisis caused trust in national institutions of government to fall noticeably too.p. 11

Box 1.5 Constitutional, reform, or Lisbon Treaty?

The Constitutional Treaty, the result of a special Convention on the Future of Europe (see section 2.4.1), was unanimously endorsed and signed by government leaders in 2004. It was eventually abandoned … or was it? Debates persist even about the answer to this most basic of questions. The Constitutional Treaty comprised three basic elements: institutional reform, a charter of fundamental rights, and the consolidation of existing treaties.

The primary institutional measures included:

increased majority voting in the Council (where each member state is represented), simplified to represent a double majority of states and of population (see section 3.3.2);

requiring European Parliament approval for (almost) all EU legislation;

a full-time and longer-term president of the European Council (where heads of state and government are represented)—this post replaced the previous six-month rotation around presidents or prime ministers of member states;

a smaller European Commission; and

a new EU minister of foreign affairs.

The second section of the treaty codified a Charter of Fundamental Rights (a wide-ranging statement of ‘rights, freedoms principles’ including the right to life, free expression, and the right to strike, binding on the Union’s institutions and in the field of EU law; see section 6.4).

The third part (by far the longest) consisted of a consolidated and amended version of all previous treaties. It formally designated the treaty as a constitution for the first time and gave the Union a single ‘legal personality’. At the same time it provided an exit clause for states wishing to leave the Union, used for the first time by the UK after it voted to leave the EU (see section 10.2). Designed to streamline and bring the EU closer to its citizens, the treaty ended up stretching to 300 pages of legal text, not all of them easily comprehensible.

Treaty change requires ratification by all member states. By mid-2007, 18 member states had ratified the treaty, two by referendum. But voters in two founding member states—France and the Netherlands—had rejected the treaty in referenda held in 2005. An alternative solution had to be found. So, European leaders agreed to abandon the idea of a ‘constitution’ and instead amended the pre-existing treaties. They avoided all references to constitutional symbols such as a European flag or anthem, and dropped the idea of giving the title EU ‘minister of foreign affairs’ to a more powerful foreign policy chief. But the new treaty maintained the bulk of the institutional reforms that were contained in the Constitutional Treaty. The treaty was initially referred to as the ‘Reform Treaty’ but, like most treaties, it took on the name of the city where it was signed in late 2007—Lisbon. Eventually ratified by all member states by the end of 2009, Lisbon actually leaves the Union with two main treaties. The first—the Treaty on European Union (TEU)—contains the basic aims, principles, and instruments of the EU, as well as its provisions on foreign and security policy. The second—the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU—contains detailed policy provisions and procedures. However, the two are often referred to in the singular as the Lisbon Treaty.

p. 12Both measures have since recorded improvements in the EU’s standing. The final Eurobarometer of 2020 found 63 per cent of people responding that their country’s membership of the EU was ‘a good thing’ (with just 9 per cent saying it was a bad thing). Similarly, reported levels of trust in the EU had climed back to 43 per cent although, once again, this trend moved in parallel with higher levels of trust in national institutions. Of course, public attitudes are not static. COVID-19—and especially the EU’s role in the vaccination programme—could impact opinion in 2021 and beyond. Aggregate EU-wide figures mask significant variation across the member states (see section 4.2.2). In the 2019 European Parliament elections, eurosceptic political parties failed to advance as strongly as predicted, although they did win around one-quarter of the seats. Eurosceptic parties performed particularly strongly in France and Italy, two founding member states. The challenge posed to the EU by eurosceptic, populist parties looks set to continue.

This book addresses two central questions about the EU: ‘How does it work?’ and ‘What does it do?’ The first question involves a deeper exploration of the main actors, processes, and dynamics of the EU. How can such a massive, complex, unwieldy amalgam of states, institutions, lobbyists, languages, traditions, legal codes, and so on possibly do much of the governing of Europe, let alone do so efficiently and legitimately? Why does the EU elicit such strong demonstrations of support and antipathy? The second question involves a deeper exploration of why European policies emerge looking as they do. How has the EU’s policy competence evolved and expanded over time? And why?

Students need to understand both the formal rules of EU practice (what the treaties say, what EU legislation stipulates, and so on), and how it really works (how the treaties are interpreted, what informal rules guide action, and other such unofficial ‘rules of the game’). A series of boxes entitled ‘How it really works’ appear throughout the book and are designed to capture this dual dynamic. They illustrate how a particular actor, policy, or process actually works, regardless of the formal rules. The book also includes a range of ‘Spotlight on’ boxes that present either short case studies that highlight a particular aspect of the EU or short focus features that unpack more difficult concepts or policies. Finally, most chapters contain ‘Key concepts and terms’ boxes that define important terms. All chapters close with guides to further reading and useful websites.

1.2 Understanding the EU: Theory and Conceptual Tools

There is, and can be, no single theory of the EU. Some years ago, one of the editors of previous editions of this book argued that scholars of the EU faced ‘a choice’ about what they wanted to explain and at which level of analysis to engage with the EU to find the answer (Peterson 2001). At one level, the EU remains a system of international relations in which states bargain, cooperate, and compete to achieve their national interests. However, it is also a distinctive and highly institutionalized p. 13system of IR, which has given rise to several regional integration theories—the principal ones being neofunctionalism, intergovernmentalism, and postfunctionalism. An ever-expanding literature adopts a constructivist approach and focuses on how the rules of the game—formal or informal—are ‘constructed’, debated, and negotiated as different kinds of EU actors interact with one another across a system of governance with multiple levels. However, the EU is not only a system of IR—it is also a political system in its own right that can usefully be studied using concepts and approaches drawn from comparative politics and public policy. The following sections explore these various theories, and their application to the EU as both a system of IR and a highly unique structure for policy-making.

1.2.1 Neofunctionalism

Distinctive theories of regional integration, which attempt to explain why states in a certain geographical part of the world embark on economic and political integration, began to emerge in the 1950s. In large part, this was driven by the early stages of European integration—the Coal and Steel Community and then the EEC (see Box 1.1). Given that they seek to explain the decisions and behaviour of states, regional integration theories tend to come from the academic discipline of IR. When applied to the EU, they are primarily concerned with explaining how and why states choose to form European institutions, and who or what determines the shape and speed of the integration process.

In 1958, after the establishment of the EEC, Ernst Haas published The Uniting of Europe, the foundational—and still the classic—text on neofunctionalism as a theory. Haas (and others) sought to explain how a merger of economic activity in specific economic sectors across borders—starting with coal and steel—could create a ‘spillover’ and provoke wider integration in related areas (Haas 1961; Schmitter 1969; Lindberg and Scheingold 1970). One form of spillover was functional: for instance, a single internal market was not truly possible without common rules on matters such as competition policy. Moreover, neofunctionalists posited that political spillover would follow and reinforce functional spillover. Political spillover referred to the possibilities created by new institutions at the European level. Actors at the national level (such as interest groups) would ally with corresponding interests across borders and interact directly with EU institutions (the European Commission, for example). Through this process, a new forum for political action—in addition to already existing national forums—would be created. Incrementally, over time, interests and loyalties would shift from the national to the supranational level.

Neofunctionalists, while acknowledging that states must decide to take the first steps on the path of integration, see the supranational institutions and transnational interest groups that subsequently emerge as being significant players in the process of further integration. States are therefore not seen as the only—or even the most—important actors in the process. Supranational institutions have an interest in furthering integration and actively encourage member state governments to integrate p. 14in new areas, develop new policies, and delegate to them more authority. The more that states integrate their economies, and the more they work together to make policy through institutions, the more their preferences converge and the easier they find it to make compromises and overcome the purer forms of power politics that often characterize IR. Neofunctionalists have termed these dynamics institutional and social spillover (see Niemann 2006). Collectively, these various forms of spillover are understood as creating a positive feedback loop—further integration reinforces existing integration, and makes even further integration more likely.

Neofunctionalism appeared well suited to explaining the successful early years of integration. However, by 1965, French President Charles de Gaulle was symbolic of the ongoing importance, to many, of state sovereignty and national interests. The mid-1960s were characterized by the so-called Empty Chair Crisis, in which De Gaulle withdrew French participation from meetings of the Council (hence the empty chair) after a variety of Commission proposals that he felt went too far in seeking to advance integration. Supranational institutions were weakened during this period. The nation state had seemingly reasserted itself (see section 2.3.1). In an attempt to adapt their theory to political reality, neofunctionalists offered new concepts such as ‘spillback’ and ‘muddling through’, softening the initial argument that integration was a largely one-way process that symbolized the weakening of states (Schmitter 1970).

Neofunctionalist theory made a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s, as the single market spilled over into environmental policy, consumer protection rules, and a single currency (Sandholtz and Zysman 1989). Sometimes called Supranational Governance theory, this later wave of research focused on the importance of delegation by member states to the EU institutions, and the power that gave the institutions to generate integrative momentum (see Sandholtz and Stone Sweet 1998). In addition to the Commission, the role of the CJEU was explored, especially the ways in which it can work to establish and entrench new legal principles that are, broadly speaking, pro-integration (see Burley and Mattli 1993). More recently, it has been used, for example, to explain how a process of spillover and feedback created the Eurozone, and the important role of institutions such as the Commission and the ECB in resolving the Eurozone crisis (Niemann and Ioannou 2015). Neofunctionalism remains a prominent theory, and one that emphasizes a more supranational perspective on the EU—in contrast to its key rival, intergovernmentalism.

1.2.2 Intergovernmentalism(s)

Dissatisfaction with neofunctionalism in the 1960s was reflected in Stanley Hoffmann’s (1966) assertion that the nation state was ‘obstinate, not obsolete’, in Europe as well as globally. The phrase captured the notion that the diversity of national interests might just as easily impede the development of European integration as further it. Coming once again from the discipline of IR, Hoffmann’s approach became known as intergovernmentalism, in part because it shifted the focus back p. 15to negotiations and bargaining between the member states. Hoffmann (1995: 1–6) also identified with realism, one of the most prominent IR theories. However, his realism was nuanced and often at odds with the central tenets of the dominant form of IR realism—neorealism (or structural realism).

Neorealism has had relatively little to say about European integration (for an exception, see Grieco 1995). Its emphasis on the primacy of states, its understanding of states as unitary and rational actors with fixed and often conflicting goals, and its pessimism about the positive impact of international institutions jar with the essence of the EU—its institutions and cross-border interest groups and its demonstration of the complexity of international politics and the ability of states to cooperate and compromise. Neorealism tends to view international politics through the lens of military and security issues, downplaying the importance of economics. For example, Rosato (2011) offered a neorealist account of European integration that identified the Cold War security threat posed by the Soviet Union—and not the post-1945 imperative of boosting economic growth—as the key factor determining decisions by the original six member states (and then more member states later) to press ahead with integration. The term realist intergovernmentalism is often applied to those who see European integration as driven overwhelmingly by member state governments in the pursuit of greater security and strategic autonomy. Andrew Moravcsik (2013) has criticized Rosato’s provocative account on both historical and methodological grounds.

That critique rested in part on a competing theory, liberal intergovernmentalism (LI) (Moravcsik 1993). This built on Hoffmann’s foundations and conceptualized the EU as a form of ‘two-level game’ taking place at the domestic level (or, rather 27 domestic levels) and the EU level. LI contends that it is the preferences and power of EU member states that drive the integration process. The theory is ‘liberal’ because it assumes that economic interests, and not just security interests (as neorealists often argue), motivate and drive European states. LI considers how national governments bargain with various domestic interest groups (especially economic ones) to produce a broad coalition in support of their policy agenda. Unlike neorealists—who treat the state as a ‘black box’ and tend to make assumptions about state preferences—liberal approaches look inside the state to understand the power dynamics shaping policy preferences. The theory is ‘intergovernmental’ because, at the EU level, it conceptualizes national governments as bringing their preferences to a bargaining table with the outcome being a reflection of the relative power of each member state.

Moravcsik emphasizes national power, package deals, and the ability to make side-payments to reluctant—often weaker or smaller—member states. EU institutions and transnational alliances of interest groups are afforded little role, marking a key distinction between LI and neofunctionalism. LI sees no significant feedback mechanism at work that pushes integration forwards. Rather, it sees the member states as always in control—they might collectively empower the EU’s institutions as a way to attain their preferred policy outcomes but they retain the ability to curb the reach and the activity of those institutions. Moravcsik’s historically impressive work, The Choice for Europe (1998), confines itself to the major decision points in p. 16the EU’s history. It does not—and is not intended to—account for much of the day-to-day activities of the EU. It approaches the Union as a subsystem of IR and one that is dominated by (the most powerful) states.

Debates between variations of intergovernmentalism and neofunctionalism—with its more supranational focus—continue to shape academic debates about the nature of EU integration (see the debates, for example, in Hooghe and Marks 2019). The tensions and debates among scholars between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism are a reflection of the tensions within the EU itself, which were outlined at the beginning of this chapter. Given the unique architecture of the EU, these tensions will persist—both in theory and in practice.

The most recent development in this area of theory is new intergovernmentalism, which explores how member states have dominated the process of EU integration since the Maastricht Treaty, which was where Moravcsik’s history ended (Puetter 2014). Building on Moravcsik’s arguments, new intergovernmentalism has explored how deeper integration has occurred without necessarily entailing supranationalism. For example, during the Eurozone crisis, new institutional structures were set up through signing intergovernmental treaties, rather than amending the EU treaties. As European integration has become more politically contentious—the shift from ‘permissive consensus’ to ‘constraining dissensus’—member state governments have grown more cautious, and arguably more creative, in advancing integration (Bickerton et al. 2015a: 710).

1.2.3 Postfunctionalism

Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2009) identified the shift from ‘permissive consensus’ to ‘constraining dissensus’ as the starting point for their postfunctional theory of European integration, which takes its inspiration less from IR and more from the study of domestic politics and the analysis of public opinion and party politics. Two points should be noted at the outset, both of which offer insights into the essence of postfunctionalism. First, recalling the distinction that opened this chapter, if neofunctionalism emphasizes institutions, and intergovernmentalism emphasizes states, postfunctionalism places the citizens of the member states—their identities, values, and understandings of political community—at the heart of how we understand integration. Second, whereas neofunctionalism contained an assumption that the often technical (or functional) nature of integration meant it could proceed largely insulated from the cut-and-thrust of national politics, postfunctionalism sees the EU as having become increasingly ‘politicized’ since the early 1990s (hence post-functionalism). As the EU has gained new competences in areas associated with core state powers—currency, borders, security, foreign affairs—it has become harder to insulate integration from national politics. Postfunctionalism is therefore yet another theoretical reflection of how the EU has evolved over time.

For postfunctionalists, the feedback effect is not (mostly) positive—as neofunctionalists contend—or non-existent—as liberal intergovernmentalists contend. Rather, it is often and increasingly negative. That dynamic arises from a mismatch between the territorial scale at which policy is made and the territorial scale at p. 17which meaningful political communities exist. Neofunctionalists suggested that functional spillover would eventually trigger political spillover, albeit with a time lag. Postfunctionalists argue that while functional spillover has progressed, and the EU has become responsible for more policy, political spillover has happened far less than predicted. While it may be more efficient to make policy at the territorial scale of 27 member states, people’s identities, values, and sense of political community remain more nationally oriented. As the gap between function and politics grows, existing tensions in the system grow louder and new ones emerge.

Not only has political spillover happened far less than predicted, it has happened unevenly. This is because European integration creates winners and losers, as do all political systems and public policies. For Hooghe and Marks, the politicization of the EU requires a greater theoretical focus on the attitudes and identities of citizens and how that shapes the EU’s 27 party-political systems. Populist, right-wing parties have been successful in a number of EU member states, in part by criticizing the EU and developing eurosceptic narratives. Those parties can work together across borders, and in institutions such as the European Parliament, to frustrate EU integration. A new political dividing line has emerged—that overlays the traditional right-wing/left-wing one—between people who feel that they have benefited from European integration, whether economically or culturally, and those who feel that they have lost out from it.

Some member states may, in turn, end up with more eurosceptic governments—either because eurosceptic parties join governing coalitions or because governing parties move to combat a perceived electoral threat by co-opting eurosceptic ideas and language. Even if not adopting their language, member state governments facing electoral competition from populist, eurosceptic parties may feel constrained, fearing the domestic political ramifications of what happens in Brussels. This is the negative feedback. It can undermine the EU’s legitimacy and, thus, the potential for future integration. Member states where more people possess a strong sense of national identity, or feel less European, or feel like economic or cultural ‘losers’ of integration—or where populist, eurosceptic parties are more effective political forces—are more likely to seek opt-outs, become disconnected, disrupt the way the EU works, or leave altogether (as the UK did—see section 10.2). Thus might begin a process of unravelling and dis-integration (Vollaard 2014; Leruth et al. 2019).

Postfunctionalism brings out the importance of ideas, values, and identities in shaping European integration—alongside material concerns about economic growth, welfare, and/or security that are explored by neofunctionalists and intergovernmentalists. This is not unique to postfunctionalism. It is at the core of a broad approach to political science that has had much to say about the EU—constructivism.

1.2.4 Constructivist approaches

What unifies constructivists is their focus on the role and power of ideas in shaping political preferences. The ways in which rules and norms are socially constructed are an important guide to political behaviour (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2006: 393). p. 18Political actors think about the consequences and outcomes of their actions, but also about what action is appropriate in a given situation. What is appropriate is a function of identity, values, and norms—all of which become embedded over time—and of social pressures. Constructivism is not a theory of integration but, as a broad approach to studying politics, it has been applied to various aspects of the EU, from how member states engage with European integration at the highest levels (Parsons 1999), down to how policy is made on a day-to-day basis (Saurugger 2013).

At the highest level, consider the following example: at the end of the Cold War, some predicted that a reunified Germany would seek to rearm—including with nuclear weapons—and would emerge once again as a security threat to its European neighbours, thus jeopardizing the integration project (Mearsheimer 1990). That prediction was premised on the notion that states seek to enhance their power and security and—if they are capable—to dominate others. Those who took the power of ideas seriously observed that Germany had, since 1945, reconstructed its national identity as a reluctant—or ‘tamed’—power (Bulmer and Paterson 2010). The nature of its reconstruction after World War II was inextricably bound up with the European project, and its collective sense of national memory militated the pursuit of active or aggressive defence postures. The post-1991 reality chimes with an approach that takes identity, norms, and ideas seriously.

At a less macro-level, constructivist research has explored the extent to which Commission officials are socialized in a supranational way (Kassim et al. 2013), or the extent to which actors can learn from prior interactions and alter their preferences accordingly (Checkel 2001). Constructivism thus shares neofunctionalism’s concern with new arenas for socialization and processes in which actors redefine their interests as a result of interacting with the EU and its institutions. Such interactions take us into the realm of day-to-day policy-making, an aspect of the EU that is researched using a variety of approaches drawn from the discipline of public policy. In that respect, the EU as an arena for making policy can be studied using tools that are applied to policy-making in national capitals.

At its heart, the constructivist tradition illuminates the many—sometimes clashing—‘big ideas’ that make up, represent, and challenge the EU as a governance structure, location, and community. As Box 1.2 illustrates, some of these big ideas are about the procedures by which the EU has decided to govern itself, balancing integration and supranationalism with sovereignty and intergovernmentalism. Other ideas are about how the EU ought to develop—the idea of a federal Europe (Box 1.6) has given significant impetus to the project of integration since its beginnings but, for those of a more eurosceptic persuasion, the EU ought to become looser and more intergovernmental. Still others refer to the substance of the norms that the EU uses to hold itself (and others) to account, and the values it attempts to work within in its key policies, as enshrined in its treaties. Ultimately, the ideas that constitute, influence, and shape the EU are continually shifting, being challenged and reworked within the fluid constructs of an evolving Union.

Box 1.6 Spotlight on: The idea of federalism

The idea that the EU is—or should be—a federation of states, in which responsibility for defined subjects is transferred to a federal level of governance, has been among the various political and academic views about the process of European integration from the beginning. Churchill spoke in his 1946 Zurich speech of the need for a United States of Europe and the 1950 Schuman Declaration, which launched the creation of the ECSC, referred to it as the ‘first solid groundwork for a European Federation’.

The idea had a long pedigree: the Bohemian King George of Podebrady, Erasmus, William Penn, Saint Simon, Immanuel Kant, John Seeley, Giuseppe Mazzini, Victor Hugo, Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, Aristide Briand, and many others had put forward proposals of varying degrees of precision for a united Europe. But it was the experience of World War II that gave a greater impetus to the concept. The 1941 Ventotene Manifesto drafted by Altiero Spinelli (after whom the main European Parliament building in Brussels is named)—who was then a prisoner in one of Mussolini’s internment camps—was smuggled out and widely circulated in the anti-fascist resistance movements across Europe. It is often hailed as a key starting point. Subsequently, a European federalist movement was created and is still active today.

Federalists ranged from those who advocated an explicit constitutive moment where a constitution would be adopted, drawn up by a representative body, to those who saw a federal system being built gradually, step by step. The former idea came to the fore on a number of occasions and member state governments twice actually established bodies to draft a constitution: in 1952 (the ad hoc assembly, explicitly set up to draft a proposal for a ‘European political authority’ with a ‘federal or confederal structure’ and a ‘two-chamber system of representation’) and again in 2002 (see Box 1.5). Neither was successful in its own terms but, as we shall see, they did shape subsequent treaty development.

The latter idea, that the EU could evolve step by step to a federation, saw theorists attaching great importance to steps whereby states have created, and over time strengthened, federal characteristics such as majority voting to adopt binding legislation, EU citizenship, a single currency, and institutions that can be seen as being of federal type, notably an elected Parliament, the Council as a chamber of states, the Commission as an executive, and the Court as a supreme court within the EU system. As Pinder (1986) put it: ‘it may well be legitimate to see the development of the Community up to now as a process of incremental federalism’.

It is, however, far from being a classic federation in that it has no common army, its budget is less than 3 per cent of public spending, its central administration is smaller than that of many cities, and its ‘constitution’ is a set of treaties that can only be changed by agreement of all its member states.

1.2.5p. 19 Public policy approaches

Public policy is a sprawling subfield of political science (see Cairney 2019) and this section can barely scratch the surface. Two specific approaches from public policy literature have been applied extensively to the EU as policy system: p. 20institutionalism andandand policy networks. Institutionalism em emerged as part of a broader move in political science in the late 1980s and 1990s (Hall and Taylor 1996; Pollack 2005). It was applied fruitfully to the study of the EU to the point where, arguably, institutionalism became the leading theory of EU policy-making (see Cowles and Curtis 2004).

There are several varieties of institutionalism. Discursive Institutionalism shares much with constructivism in emphasizing how ideas and values can shape policy preferences—even when that means doing harm to material interests. Using the example of Germany’s approach to the Eurozone crisis, Matthijs (2016) explored how the German government’s strict adherence to a set of ideas about national budgetary restraint and economic austerity helped exacerbate the very crisis it sought to end. Germany’s position of power helped to embed these ideas in the EU’s institutions. Similarly—and using the example of policy-making in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis—Schmidt (2014) explored how a process of dialogue and argument helped change the preferences of policy-makers in member states and within key EU institutions.

Historical institutionalism focuses on the impact of institutions over time and specifically how institutions, once established, can shape and constrain the behaviour of the actors who established them (Pierson 1996; Armstrong and Bulmer 1998). It therefore has a lot in common with neofunctionalism. Political institutions and even policies, once established, can become subject to path dependency. Political actors often naturally stick with established institutions and policies as they increasingly learn how to operate with, and within, them. Institutions, and policies, are thus said to be ‘sticky’; that is, once established, they tend not to change. Consider the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which persevered for many years despite intense criticism. The idea of starting again on a long, time-consuming, and expensive root and branch reform of the CAP was resisted. Instead, incremental adaptations were made. Verdun (2015) traced how the EU response to the Eurozone crisis involved an incremental layering of new policies and institutions onto existing arrangements. Historical institutionalists use the concept of a critical juncture to explain periods of more significant—as opposed to incremental—change (Bulmer 2009).

Finally, much of the work of developing policy takes place in policy networks (Peterson 2003; Jordan and Schout 2006—see section 5.3). Sectoral policy networks in the EU bring together institutional actors (from the Commission, Council, and Parliament) and other stakeholders such as representatives of private firms, public interest groups, technical or scientific experts, political campaigners, and national officials who are working on (or affected by) the same issues. Networks lack hierarchy. There is no one actor in charge. They rely instead on resource exchange. As a result, participants need to bring some valued resource to the table with which to bargain. That resource could be information, ideas, money, constitutional-legal power, or political legitimacy. According to network analysts, bargaining and resource exchange among these actors, rather than strictly intergovernmental bargaining, determine the shape of actual EU policies (see Kingah et al. 2015).

p. 21Approaches grounded in public policy do not tell us much about the grand bargains struck between national governments, the history-making decisions, such as treaty reform, that set the broad direction of European integration. But they help guide exploration of the behind-the-scenes negotiation and exchange that shapes EU policy day to day.

1.2.6 Different theories, different insights

When studying anything as complex as the EU, we need conceptual tools to guide us. Theories simplify reality and allow us to see relationships between the things we observe. There are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ theories, but there are more or less appropriate theories and concepts to apply depending upon the question being explored. Each offers different insights about key features of the EU: how integration evolves; the way policies are made; the role of different actors in the process; and so on. Reflecting that, the chapter on member states, for example, uses intergovernmentalism and postfunctionalism to structure its analysis, whereas the chapter on policy-making features a discussion of public policy literature. Theories can be thought of like lenses at an optician’s—sometimes it might be helpful to layer one on top of the other to bring reality into clearer focus, rather than squinting harder through the first lens you are offered. Readers need not master all these theories to use this book. Rather, these insights are meant to encourage thinking about theory and its role in helping us understand and evaluate European integration and EU politics.

1.3 Themes

To help the reader make sense of the EU, this text is held together by three common themes. Each highlights a key, distinctive feature of the EU as:


an ‘experiment in motion’, an ongoing process without a clear end-state;


a system of shared power characterized by growing complexity and an increasing number of players;


an organization with an expanding scope, but limited capacity.

We introduce each of these themes below.

1.3.1 Experimentation and change

Since its conception in the early 1950s, European integration has been an ongoing process without an agreed end-state (van Middelaar 2013). In one sense its development has been a functional, step-by-step process: integration in one area has led to pressures to integrate in others. As neofunctionalists would point out, the EU p. 22has developed from a free trade area to a single market, and from a single market to an economic and monetary union. These developments, however, have not been smooth or automatic. Rather, the EU’s development has progressed in fits and starts, the result of constant experimentation, problem-solving, and trial and error. A customs union required a common external tariff, which required a common position on trade negotiations, which meant addressing foreign policy considerations. European foreign policy evolved, from the failed attempts of the 1950s (see section 2.2.2), to the creation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in the early 1990s and a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in the late 1990s (see section 8.4).

The EU’s actors have reacted to immediate problems, often successfully, but not always coherently nor always predictably, and the nature and intensity of change are also varied. Constitutional change takes place through intergovernmental conferences (IGCs)—special negotiations in which government representatives come together to hammer out agreements to adapt or alter the EU’s founding treaties, and which require national ratification by all. The first (resulting in the 1951 Treaty of Paris) created the ECSC with six members. Most recently, the Lisbon Treaty (ratified in 2009) was designed to consolidate and streamline a Union of (then) 27 members, with the possibility of it growing still further to 30 or more (see Box 1.7). Less spectacularly, legislative change has taken place through thousands of EU directives and regulations. Finally, the EU’s institutions, especially the European Commission and Court of Justice, and the member states, have themselves acted as instigators of change, through their interpretations of the treaties and of legislation as well as through informal agreements and practices supplementing them. The point is that change is a constant in the EU. This book explores its main sources and implications.

Box 1.7 Spotlight on: The treaties

When practitioners and academics use the term ‘the treaties’, they are referring to the collection of founding treaties and their subsequent revisions. The founding treaties include the Treaty of Paris (signed in 1951, establishing the ECSC) and two Treaties of Rome signed in 1957, one establishing the EEC and the other Euratom. The Treaty of Paris expired in July 2002. The Euratom Treaty never amounted to much. But the Treaty of Rome that established the EEC became absolutely central. It has been substantially revised, notably in the following:

Single European Act (SEA; signed 1986, effective 1 July 1987);

Treaty on European Union, or Maastricht Treaty (signed 1992, effective 1 November 1993);

Treaty of Amsterdam (signed 1997, effective 1 May 1999);

Treaty of Nice (signed 2001, effective 1 February 2003);

Treaty of Lisbon (signed 2007, effective 1 December 2009).

p. 23As Box 1.1 explained, the Maastricht Treaty not only revised the Treaty of Rome (which it renamed as the treaty establishing the European Community), but also agreed the broader TEU. The EU’s treaties are the basic toolkit of ministers, European commissioners, parliamentarians, and civil servants dealing with EU matters. Each piece of legislation is based on one of these treaty articles (of which there are more than 400). The treaties have grown increasingly long and complex and are hardly an easy read. To improve the presentation, and facilitate the reading of the treaties, the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 renumbered the articles. The failed Constitutional Treaty of 2004 was intended to simplify the existing texts and make them more readable. The Lisbon Treaty made a more modest attempt at simplification and, although the term ‘constitution’ was dropped, the treaties were consolidated, with a shorter more readable TEU setting out the main principles, institutions, and procedures, leaving the complex detail to the (renamed) Treaty on the Functioning of European Union (TFEU).

1.3.2 Power sharing and consensus

Our second theme concerns power and how it is shared between different actors and across layers of government. The EU policy-making system lacks a clear nexus of power: there is no powerful ‘EU government’, nor is there any formalized ‘official opposition’. Instead, power is dispersed across a range of actors and levels of governance (regional, national, and supranational). Deciding which actors should do what, and at what level of governance, is a matter of ongoing debate within the EU. But, whenever possible, the Union seeks to act on the basis of broad consensus.

The three most important sets of actors are the member states, the EU institutions, and organized interests. Certainly, much about the evolution of the EU has been determined by the member states themselves, and in particular their different approaches to integration. Some member states want deeper integration, others do not, some have changed their view over time or as their governments change, and some want more integration in some fields but less in others. Such divisions continue to shape the speed and form of the integration process. Meanwhile, EU institutions have shaped integration as they vie for power, with the member states as well as among themselves. Finally, organized interests—including representatives of subnational levels of governance, private interests, and citizen groups—play an increasingly large role.

Part of what makes the EU unique—and certainly different from its member states—is that these actors exist in a complex web where there are established patterns of interaction but no overall ‘ruler’, government, or even dominant actor. Instead, actors must bargain and share power in an effort to reach an agreement acceptable to all, or at least most. This dynamic has been captured in the term multi-level governance (Box 1.2), which suggests a system of overlapping and shared powers between actors on the regional, national, and supranational level (Hooghe and Marks 2001). EU governance is thus an exercise in sharing power between states and institutions, p. 24and seeking consensus across different levels of governance. Coming to grips with this unique and changing distribution of power is a key task of this book.

1.3.3 Scope and capacity

Our final theme concerns the expanding remit of the EU, and its ability to cope with it. The EU has undergone continuous (in a phrase used by insiders) ‘widening and deepening’. The widening of its membership has been astonishing. It has grown from a club of six member states (West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) to nine (UK, Denmark, and Ireland joined in 1973), to 12 (Greece joined in 1981; and Portugal and Spain in 1986), to 15 (Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined in 1995). Then, in 2004, the EU membership jumped to 25 following the accession of ten mainly Central and Eastern European (CEE) states. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 took the EU to 27 members, with Croatia becoming the 28th (pre-Brexit) in 2013. Although the UK has left, additional countries—North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and in theory Turkey—are candidate states (section 9.3.2). The institutional, political, economic, and even linguistic challenges that enlargement poses are immense (see Box 1.8). The EU has also ‘deepened’ in the sense that the member states have decided to pool sovereignty in an increasing number of policy areas. Such developments mean that the EU is managing tasks that have traditionally been the exclusive preserve of the nation state.

Box 1.8 How it really works: Lost in interpretation?

Following the accession of Croatia in 2013, the EU boasted 24 official languages: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, and Swedish.

The EU’s translation service is the largest in the world by far (over twice the size of the United Nation’s (UN)). As the EU can adopt legislation that will be in force in each member state, it was felt necessary to translate it into every national language. Despite this, the cost of translation and interpretation is estimated to account for less than 1 per cent of the annual general budget of the EU. Divided by the population of the EU, this comes to around €2 per person. In 2016, the EU’s Directorate-General for Translation’s output was over 2.2 million pages. In practice, most administrative work of the EU is carried out in just three languages, English, French, and German (European Commission 2013). But in the Parliament, where being able to communicate with electors in their own language is seen as a political necessity, debates are interpreted simultaneously into all 24 languages, with interpreters in soundproof boxes juggling with words such as ‘gobbledygook’ (the word doesn’t exist in Polish), and trying to avoid confusing frozen semen with frost-bitten seamen (as occurred in one parliamentary debate). Meanwhile, the rising cost of translation has had one positive effect—it has forced practitioners to limit most official texts to fewer than 15 pages.

Sources: European Commission (2016); query to European Parliament Research Service, January 2018.

p. 25At the same time the EU continues to try to shed its image as an ‘economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm’, a depiction attributed to a Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens. The EU is trying to stamp its authority on the international scene through its leadership on issues such as climate change and the Iranian nuclear programme. A CFSP has been developed that, according to the treaties, ‘might lead to a common defence’ (Article 24 TEU). These developments have challenged the EU’s capacity—its practical and political ability to realize its ambitions. While the EU has taken on more members and more tasks, its institutional and political development has not kept pace. This mismatch—between the EU’s ambitions on one hand and its institutional, budgetary, and political capacity on the other (see Hill 1993)—raises questions about the EU’s future. It also represents the third theme of the volume.

Taken together, these three themes address:

how the EU has developed and why (experimentation and change);

who are the main players and how they interact (power sharing and consensus);

what the EU does, and how it does it (scope and capabilities).

These three themes provide the glue necessary to hold together our investigation of the EU and how it works.

1.4 Chapter Layout

The book is organized into four parts. Part I of the book covers some of the background information necessary for any informed engagement with the EU. This introduction has introduced some of the key theories and concepts that shape academic research about European integration and Chapter 2 provides a history of European integration. The next two parts of the book focus on two interrelated questions about the EU—How does it work? And what does it do? Understanding how it works (Part II) requires knowledge of the EU’s institutions (Chapter 3) and its member states (Chapter 4). How the institutions and member states work together—and with many other actors—to make policy is the subject of Chapter 5. Closing Part II of the book, Chapter 6 considers how democratic the EU is: how seriously should we take charges of a ‘democratic deficit’? And how much of a threat to the EU’s democratic values are member states, such as Hungary and Poland, accused of ‘democratic backsliding’? Part III covers the EU’s policies, both internal (Chapter 7) and external (Chapter 8), although the dividing line between internal policies and external policies is not clear-cut. Closing Part III of the book, Chapter 9 considers the EU’s relations with its closest neighbours, as well as discussing the EU’s enlargement policy. Part IV looks ahead, taking stock of the EU’s current and future challenges (Chapter 10). Chapter 11 concludes by drawing together the main themes of the volume.

p. 26Discussion Questions


The EU can be seen as one of the most successful modern experiments in international cooperation, yet it is increasingly unpopular among some of its citizens. Why?


Which theory offers the most compelling account of recent developments in the EU?

Test your understanding of this chapter with additional self-test questions, with instant feedback.

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Further Reading

Luuk Van Middelaar (2013)—a former speechwriter to the European Council president—developed a variation of the states, institutions, and citizens framework. Wiener et al. (2018) cover the vast range of theoretical and conceptual approaches to studying the EU. Ioannou et al. (2015) and Hooghe and Marks (2019) contain articles re-engaging with many of the key integration theories—and Manners and Whitman (2016) challenge some of the gaps that exist. On recent notions that the EU is facing almost perpetual crisis, see the special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy (2018), as well as Riddervold et al. (2021). Bradford (2020) develops the ‘Brussels effect’, which is so central to understanding the power of the EU in the world.

  • Bradford, A. (2020) The Brussels Effect: How the EU Rules the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Hooghe, L., Laffan, B., and Marks, G. (eds.) (2018) ‘Theory Meets Crisis’, Special issue, Journal of European Public Policy, 22/2.
  • Hooghe, L., and Marks, G. (eds.) (2019) ‘Re-engaging grand theories: European integration in the 21st century’, Special issue, Journal of European Public Policy, 26/8.
  • Ioannou, D., Leblong, P., and Niemann, A. (eds.) (2015) ‘European integration in times of crisis: Theoretical perspectives’, Special issue, Journal of European Public Policy, 22/2.
  • Manners, I., and Whitman, R. (eds.) (2016) ‘Another theory is possible: Dissident voices in theorising Europe’, Special issue, Journal of Common Market Studies, 54/1.
  • Riddervold, M., Trondal, J., and Newsome, A. (eds.) (2021) The Palgrave Handbook of EU Crises (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan).
  • Van Middelaar, L. (2013) The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press).
  • Wiener, A., Borzel, T., and Diez, T. (eds.) (2018) European Integration Theory, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • p. 27Web Links

    The EU’s official website is a good starting point, providing links to a variety of official sites on the EU’s policies, institutions, legislation, treaties, and current debates.

    The EU’s Official Journal, updated daily in several languages, is the authoritative and formal source for information on EU legislation, case law, parliamentary questions, and documents of public interest.

    A daily and detailed comment on what happens at the EU level can be found at Agence Europe.

    A number of good English-language news sources cover the EU, including:

    TEPSA (the Trans-European Policy Studies Association) is a research network focused on European studies.

    Explore this topic further with additional web links to reliable content on EU politics.

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