Book Review

April 16, 2007 15:04 | reviewed by Steve McGiffen

Raj Chari and Sylvia Kritzinger Understanding EU Policy Making (London: Pluto Press, 2006) £16.99)

The authors begin by noting how policies emanating from the European Union are of increasing importance to the citizens of the member states. They divide these policies into those which they describe as '1st order', which include single market measures, competition policy, economic and monetary policies, and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and in which "one sees a centralized and strong EU that seeks to make its mark on the world in the context of other major players in the world economy"; and '2nd order' policies which see "a decentralized EU, where national governments have maintained their sovereignty" conducting programmes and making laws based on competences which "remain weak and ill-defined". The first group are priorities for both the EU's own institutions and for the member states as they operate and interact at European level. In relation to the second, which includes social policy, immigration and foreign policy, "intervention by the EU is regarded with suspicion."

Having laid out their schema, the authors explain that the intention of their book is to pose "two driving questions". The first is whether the division is empirically sound, the second,"if so, why and how do policies become of 1st and 2nd order nature?". Does a policy become 1st order because the division suits European capital's aim to ensure that the EU becomes "significant, perhaps even hegemonic" as a global economic power? The 2nd order policies would then be seen as those which "are not of particular concern to capital actors."

This hypothesis is tested by means of an examination of the historical development of a range of policies and, in each case, posing the question as to whether "one can characterize the policy as indicative of either a strong centralized EU, or a weak, decentralized one where there has been a lack of harmonization?" Who has been involved in the policy's formulation? What factors have guided them? These questions are filtered through the lens of a range of theoretical approaches to European integration. A chapter is devoted to an outline critique of these theories, which include "institutionalism", which proceeds from the argument "that political institutions matter in determining political behaviour"; "supranational governance", a perspective derived from "neo-functionalism", centres around the observation that while "nation states are forced to enter into relationships with others in order to gain economic benefits", where supranational institutions result from this they take on a life of their own. At European level this has meant that once centralised institutions have been given power over economic affairs, this power has been extended into other policy areas. The authors, not wishing to pre-determine their eventual conclusions, refer to this simply as "spillover", but it is more commonly called 'empire-building'.

The theory of "intergovernmental governance" is another brand of institutionalism, but one which sees the Council of Ministers as determinant. It is in the Council that the member states' governments are directly represented, where they cooperate, jostle, squabble and compromise; and as it is the member states which run the show, it is to the Council which we must look if we are to understand why the European Union does what it does, takes the decisions it takes and acts upon them, or fails to act upon them.

Theories of "interest intermediation" return the focus to the EU's range of institutions, seeing each as an actor which may not be neutral but itself a player in the game. Each, for instance, "may offer greater access to policy making to some political, economic and social actors...than to others." Having now spent twenty-one years involved in a variety of capacities with the European Parliament - and thus, indirectly but closely, with the European Commission - I can confirm that this is the case, though I suspect that the observation will fail to produce an astonished gasp from many readers.

The "pluralist perspective", in contrast, puts forward the view "that all groups with a vested interest in a policy area will be able to gain access to the policy-making process and therefore will have an equal opportunity to influence the policy's development." This is the kind of "theory" which puts people off political science as a discipline. As it's plainly untrue, there seems little point in wrestling with its complexities, which in any case derive only from its adherents' desire to dazzle and mystify their unfortunate readers with long, often invented words, or words appropriated from other meanings. Why waste one's time on a theory which anyone who has ever attempted in whatever role to influence a legislative process can see is preposterous? True, some variants of the theory do confess that some actors may be more equal than others, arguing, however, that all that is needed to right this is a little tweaking, rather than structural, still less social, transformation.

Back in the real world, we have what the authors call "the dominant economic class perspective". Scholars of this persuasion differ as to whether they approve ('elitists') or disapprove (Marxists and 'neo-Marxists') of this class hegemony, but at least they are living on the same planet as the rest of us.

This difficult but, unfortunately, key chapter ends by passing judgement on these various theories, all of which are seen as having at least some value when applied to certain aspects of the problems involved in understanding how policies come to be developed and adopted.

The 'empirical' chapters which follow deal, respectively, with single market policy, competition policy, EMU, the CAP, social policy, the 'third pillar' (aka 'freedom, security and justice') and external policies. Of the most significant policy areas, then, only the environment is missing, a curious omission when you consider its increasing importance both at EU policy-making level and in the global consciousness.

As a source of information on, and a knowledgeable critique of, EU policies, this book is a worthwhile addition to a very small pile. Yet having said that, I find myself harbouring doubts about its overall approach.

Firstly, the authors' hypothesis seems to me to break down in certain areas. Surely, capital has a major interest in defence policy, to take the most glaring example of this. On the other hand environmental policy was, until very recently, a relatively peripheral concern. Yet the former remains to a large degree in the hands of the member states, while the latter is increasingly negotiated at Community level. While it is certainly true that the desire of large and powerful sections of capital for "a centralized and strong EU that seeks to make its mark in the global economy" is a major factor influencing decision-making in Europe, and that the effects of this vary from sector to sector, it is far from being the only factor feeding into this process. Two which might be mentioned are, firstly, history, and, secondly, simple expediency. Historically the nation-state came to define itself as the source of internal order and external defence. These came to be seen as the very essence of sovereignty and therefore of the state itself, and they are not to be given up lightly. Only since 9/11 has pressure from the United States led the first to be called into question, while the latter remains substantially intact, NATO being, by the authors' definition, 'decentralized', with formal equality between member states, even if the informal reality differs considerably from this. It is therefore unsurprising that EU member states retain the lions' share of control of defence policy, and this would surely be the case even if France and Britain did not possess their own nuclear bombs, and if the new member states were to forget that, within the living memory of some of their inhabitants, many of them have suffered invasion and humiliation by what is now the EU's biggest member state. As for expediency, environmental policy so clearly demands international cooperation that were the EU to cease to exist, some means of perpetuating cooperation on this policy area would surely have to be found. To put it simply, the member states have granted competence to supranational institutions for the simple reason that it would make no sense to do anything else.

Finally, while the categories employed in defining policy areas are useful, and so far as matters such as formal competence are concerned they work perfectly well, they begin to break down in the face of less institutional considerations. The recent directive on services in the internal market, for example, though ostensibly a single market measure, provides stark evidence that capital is indeed interested in social policy. If the experience of three decades of neoliberalism should teach us anything, it is that measures which claim to be interested only in smoothing trade between nations can in reality be powerful weapons in the class war. And it is the business of fighting and winning that war which most determines the political behaviour of capital.

Despite these criticisms, I would commend this book to anyone who wants to read intelligent analysis of the EU's structures and policies, and where they come from. Its authors are heretically critical of the process of integration in its present form, which is refreshing. And they are aware that there is a world outside the EU's institutions whose existence and aspirations must be taken into account in any analysis of how the Union works, and on whose behalf. As for that, as the authors themselves conclude, it's all about class. As usual.

The reviewer, Steve McGiffen, is Spectre's editor and the author of The European Union: A Critical Guide