Or Aspects of Union Political Discourse by Robert Hosking

The political status of the European Union (EU) is often interpreted in terms of plurality. ‘Intergovernmentalists’ consider the Union a body of institutions controlled and dominated by Member States and used as a means of strengthening their power. ‘Supranationalists’ argue that the Union is a distinct polity with a significant degree of autonomy, which is not only limiting Member States’ individual rights of action, but also undermining their traditional state roles.


However, the term supranationalism should not be muddled with federalism. The force of federalism is one whereby a supranational body or institution denies Member States the absolute right of independent action thus, for the common interests of the federation as a whole, the elite body drives the Union towards governance that surpasses any individual authority of the Member State.


These distinctions offered are significant, for they are useful tools when wishing to understand the range of political debate concerning the EU. Discourse concerning the Union is generally centred around these three perspectives, and influence the opinions of ministers, commentators and writers. However, to realise the implications of each of perspective, one must acknowledge the areas of action traditionally associated with the state. 


The modern nation-state performs the functions of managing a single currency and the management of trade, the ability to raise and allocate wealth through tax and budget systems, the right to define and maintain its own ‘law and order’ and its own defence and security. Sovereignty is absolute authority of action in these areas within a nation’s territory. If this right is denied or compromised to the priorities of Union interests, one could say that a tendency towards supranationalism or federalism is occurring.


Contrary to mainstream opinion, especially in the UK, whilst Member States have progressively delegated financial and monetary powers to the Community for their own enrichment and power, there remain difficulties in interpreting this phenomenon as the development of federalism. Moreover, Member States remain reticent in sharing their autonomy held over policing and military concerns.  


The historic construction of the EU has been marked between the Union-wide integration of a capitalist economic order, while matters dealing with crime and punishment and the use of armed force and violence have been jealously guarded. In consequence, it was not until the 1970s that procedures began for Member States to discuss and co-ordinate their positions on foreign affairs and ‘law and order.’  


The European Political Cooperation (EPC) was not given treaty status until 1986, making it clear that matters of foreign affairs and state security had remained strictly outside the Community and its institutions for over three decades. Whilst the European Commission had the almost singular position of initiating Community (economic) legislation and managing the institution, the EPC was a strictly intergovernmental body, in which the right of veto was maintained and the Commission was relegated to a position of insignificance.   


The same occurs when investigating the provisions established on matters of ‘law and order,’ the police state. The ‘sensitivity’ of these issues justified intergovernmental approaches that kept power in the hands of nation-states’ ministers and officials and away from public scrutiny both at the national and Union level.


In fact, it was not until 1992 that the European Union, an international body composed into three distinct ‘Pillars' was established by the Treaty on European Union (TEU).  The Community Pillar (EC) is essentially concerned with economic integration and the Common Market. The Common Foreign and Security Pillar (CFSP) replaced the EPC, and the Justice and Home Affairs Pillar (JHA), the ‘law and order’ branch of the Union.


Following the TEU, the Commission remains the Community Pillar’s executive. It has a monopoly on policy initiative where even the Council of Ministers (Council), the guardian of governments’ interests, needs unanimity to overturn the Commission’s legislative proposals, no small deed in a Union of twenty-five member states. Article 213 of the ‘Treaty Establishing the European Community’ obliges the Commission “neither to seek nor take instruction from any government or from any other body.” The legal acts that apply to the whole of the Community are directly effective and prevail over national law.


The Commission can also take legal action if it feels any institution or Member State is in default of Community obligation, from which the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has full powers of judicial review and legal adjudication. Furthermore, most Member States have accepted a single currency overseen by an independent European Central Bank (ECB). Clearly, from the definition offered above, areas of nation-state sovereignty have been compromised, and from this perspective one may talk of the Community as being a supranational, quasi-federal institution.


Nevertheless, the reason for the Commission and ECJ’s existence is to make sure the Common Market , an economic institution that has empowered the Member State, not weakened it, functions effectively. Community law can only be directly effective and supreme because Member States have agreed to this. Moreover, the Community lacks the coercive powers needed if its decrees are to be obeyed.


The tax and budget system, which represents a major element in state power “to moderate or shape market forces,” is meagre within the Union. The budget is capped at 1.27% of the Union’s GDP, the revenue of which is mainly collected from VAT contributions. In other words, Union tax is generally levied on the people of Europe. This is significant, for it is well understood that taxation without representation is a fundamental element of tyranny. Moreover, a budget of this magnitude cannot perform economic stabilisation programmes and means the power to tax and spend in Europe, an important element of the nation-state’s sovereignty, is still a national function.


The balance of power in the Community is such that the Commission, European Parliament (EP) and ECJ are not independent forces in their own right. Although the Community does contain federal aspects of governance in terms of executive and legislative authority and the management of a single currency, the impact of lobbyists, big business and other international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) muddles any explicit definition of federalism or supranationalism.


These groups help set the agenda by lobbying the Commission, Council and EP, turning their desires into proposals for policies. Furthermore, it is the treaties negotiated, signed and ratified by nation-states that clearly emphasise the institutions’ legal and policy commitments, ensuring that the Union’s institutions cannot decide their own rules and power.


Taking these factors into account, the metaphoric ‘pendulum’ in the first Pillar swings chaotically between intergovernmental, supranational and federal interpretations, within which a huge range of actors with formal and informal powers are involved.


In consequence of the TEU areas of ‘high politics,’ such as foreign policy and ‘law and order,’ are still protected by national governments. The CFSP and JHA remain institutions regimented by the logic of co-operation between sovereign states in a ‘globalising’ world. Based on the veto right for all, the European Council, supported by the Council of Ministers, lays down the rules for policy from which any decision that touches upon matters of foreign affairs or criminal concerns will have to be decided by unanimity.


As a result, the CFSP in the last major European war (the former Yugoslav conflicts), was impotent from the start. The CFSP was not only subordinated to the will of its Member States, but also the desired actions of the USA, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation. In consequence, the CFSP’s position was relegated to that of a casual bystander who could offer “no evidence of its...involvement in the diplomatic process” that eventually brought about ‘peace’ in the area.


Since these perceived failures, there have been moves to enhance co-operation within the CFSP. Its own High Representative and the Security General of the Western European Union (WEU) were united into one post, thus amalgamating and institutionalising the EU’s security and defence projects. The Council plans to create a ‘reaction force’ of 60,000 soldiers by 2004, allowing Union troops to be deployed for the first time. The Treaty of Amsterdam (TA) also introduced the clause of ‘constructive abstention,’ whereby a state accepts the legitimacy of CFSP action, but does not want to be involved with it. Nevertheless, this clause does not override the nation-state’s right of veto where it feels its own ambitions are compromised, nor the fact that decisions made within the CFSP remain unanimous. These factors remind one of the extent to which intergovernmentalism dominates the second Pillar.


Meanwhile, Article 33 of the TEU makes it explicit that any rules adopted by the Council within the JHA, “shall not affect...Member States...maintenance of law and order and the safe-guarding of internal security.” In other words, national sovereignty reigns supreme. The process of ‘communitarisation,’ where laws are moved from the JHA to the EC, has been done to increase nation-states’ power. It is no irony that many cuts were made in the European Convention on Human Rights, whilst border control and matters of civil law were placed within the EC. The rationale for much of this movement is twofold. Firstly, to deal with the consequences of ruthless neo-liberalism;  secondly, as Daniel Wincott argues, to “infect and weaken the established body of Community policy” by introducing intergovernmental processes into a supranational institution.


As explained in my essay "The European Parliament and Democracy,” the EU is a system of political and economical control where particular rules are applied which pursue particular ends. Those who define these conditions define the Union’s legitimacy and development. One feels this power has been carefully provided for, and ultimately resides in an highly centralised, intergovernmental institution. Article 4 of the TEU makes this fact clear. It is the European Council who “shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for the development and shall define the...political guidelines thereof.”

Suggested further reading

Bainbridge, T. (2002) The Penguin Companion To European Union, Third Edition, London, Penguin Group, Penguin. 

Bell, D. S. (2001) The Re-forging of European Political Traditions, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Bromley, S. (2001) Introduction: Governance And The European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Bromley, S. (2001) The Nation State In The European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Bromley, S. (2001) Conclusion: What is the European Union?, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Church, C. H. Phinnemore, D. (2002) The Penguin Guide to the European Treaties, From Rome to Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Beyond, London, Penguin Group, Penguin.

Cram, L. (2001) Integration and Policy Processes in the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Gnesotto, N (1999) Europa y el Poder, Barcelona, Ediciones Bellaterra.

Hartley, T. C. (1994) The Foundations Of European Community Law, Third Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Heffernan, R. (2001) Building The European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Laffan, B. (2001) Finance and Budgetary Processes in the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Lewis, P. (2001) The Enlargement of the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Lord, C. (2001) Democracy and Democratization in the European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Smith, M. (2001) European Foreign and Security Policy, London, Sage Publications, Open University.

Wincott, D. (2001) Law, Order And Administration In The European Union, London, Sage Publications, Open University.