The Political Culture of an Integrated Europe

The Transformation of Interstate Relations in the European Union

In order to better understand the EU's perspective on global governance, a useful first step is to look at its internal workings and to identify a number of defining features as these have evolved historically. One essential aspect of European integration has been its legal dimension, the fact that cooperation between the states in Europe is based on a treaty, and that the original treaties have created institutions that themselves are generating law, rules, and norms on a daily basis. The EU's institutional structure does not only set up coordinating mechanisms and secretariats, but comprises legislative institutions—the European Parliament and Council of the EU acting together as the bicameral legislature—whose decisions become binding law with direct effect on its states, businesses, and individual citizens in the EU.

The Court of Justice of the EU, whose judges rule independently of the member states, is a body whose rulings have reinterpreted and greatly expanded the reach of the founding treaties and of secondary legislation. Principles such as the supremacy of EU law over national laws and the direct effects of EU legislation even without transposition in the member states have been key aspects of this process of judicial law-making (Stone Sweet and Sandholtz 1997). The origins of the European Union in developing its own human rights regime lies in the willingness and the capacity of the Court to expand these boundaries, thereby turning the European Union into more than merely a bloc of states.

The effect of law-making in the European Union has been the accumulation of a vast body of Union law, the so-called aquis communitaire, which now provides a dense normative environment within which political decisionmaking in Europe is embedded. 'Integration through law' (Cappeletti et al. 1988), as this phenomenon has been called in one of the seminal works on the subject, is something that sets the EU apart from regional organizations elsewhere that may otherwise have similar institutional features. This is not to say that states have become powerless—in fact, they remain the key actors in this process—but rather that the exercise of state power in Europe is circumscribed by a normative structure in which political activity is now embedded.

This nature of the European Union as a space in which laws, rules, and norms are being produced and are expanding on a continuous basis rests mainly on two 'pillars': first, the independent power of supranational institutions and, second, a 'culture of compromise' in the bargaining among states. With regards to the first of these 'pillars', as the previous discussion already implied, there is the presence of a set of independent institutions that are empowered to take decisions autonomously, and who can, and do, take decisions that might go against the preferences of one or several of the member states from time to time.

Part of the reason why these institutions have a degree of independence from the member states lies in the sources of their legitimacy. The members of the European Parliament, for example, draw their democratic legitimacy from the direct elections to which they owe their seat in the chamber. There clearly are limits to the independence of these institutions, which mainly have to do with appointment procedures, political allegiances, informal arrangements, and the realities of political and economic power in the EU. Supranational institutions cannot be independent of everyone all of the time—even if that were technically possible, it would limit their political effectiveness and ultimately endanger their legitimacy. But by being independent, or being seen to be independent most of the time, supranational institutions play an essential role in maintaining and deepening the nature of the EU as a rule-bound polity in which the member states' freedom of manoeuvre is checked by the presence of a legal framework.

The second 'pillar' on which the political culture of this polity rests is the way in which states relate to one another. While EU decision-making involves supranational institutions, national governments remain key players in this process, even if it is contested whether they still dominate decision-making as they certainly did in the first few decades of the integration process. While the academic debate about the respective merits of intergovernmentalist, functionalist, and post-functionalist approaches to understanding the EU continues (Bickerton et al. 2015; Schimmelfennig 2014; Marks and Hooghe 2009), the point here is not about the relative influence of states in EU decision-making, but rather about the nature of the interaction between their representatives in that process.

The hub of such interaction is the Council of the EU, which brings together national ministers in a variety of sector-specific configurations. However, beyond being a meeting place for national ministers, the Council has also developed over time into a full-blown institution in its own right. Decisions taken in the ministerial councils are prepared in a plethora of working groups and task forces, only to then be channelled to the political level through a couple of top-level committees of national ambassadors. Indeed, the vast majority of decisions are 'pre-cooked' here, in these ambassadorial committees, and merely rubber-stamped by the ministers (Christiansen 2001a).

Most of the decisions at all levels in the Council structure are formally taken by a qualified majority, a particular voting mechanism in the EU which recognizes the population size of member states and requires a supermajority of these weighted votes for decisions to be taken. This practice of 'Qualified Majority Voting' (QMV) has progressively replaced the requirement for unanimity, and hence the possibility of national vetoes, in most areas of decisionmaking, even though a number of important areas such as foreign and security policy or taxation continue to require unanimity.

It has been this fundamental shift in the nature of the way the Council makes its decisions that has made the vast rise in the volume of EU decisionmaking over the last few decades possible. However, the arrival of QMV has not led to a situation in which member states outvote each other on a regular basis. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the vast majority of Council decisions are still taken by consensus, despite the formal possibility for 'winner-takes-all' voting to achieve a result (Best and Settembri 2008; Heisenberg 2005). States still bargain in search of their preferred outcome, but they do so with a willingness to compromise in order to ensure that in the end they have a say in the outcome rather than ending up being outvoted.

What might until now sound like a rather technical discussion of decisionmaking procedures within the EU's institutions has nevertheless wide-ranging repercussions for the way in which states in Europe relate to each other, and also for how they perceive themselves. The daily practice of Council decisionmaking in the shadow of QMV means that on the whole states have accepted as a matter of normal routine that there are limits to their power, that they need to give up aspects of their national interest in the search for a compromise, and that decisions that they have no final control over become binding law to which they will have to submit. As a result, there has been the growth of a 'culture of compromise' in the interaction among states—and this is indeed a culture in the way it has become an accepted and a legitimate part of interstate relations in Europe, and not the occasional and exceptional outcome of coercive pressure being applied. National administrations know and expect that there will need to be compromises even before entering negotiations, and this culture permeates all levels of government involved in EU decision-making, from ministerial officials to heads of state and government (Lewis 2000).

Recognizing the emergence of such a culture of compromise among the member states should not ignore that they are still powerful actors in this system, and that they have a wide range of resources to bring to bear in order to influence the outcome of negotiations. State interests remain crucial to understanding the outcomes of EU decision-making, and the uneven distribution of power among the states remains a key factor in such explanations. The refugee crisis that came to a head in 2015/16 demonstrated, among other things, that in such circumstances states rather than supranational institutions wield decisive power. However, the argument about the culture of compromise is merely that EU member states, including the larger and more powerful ones, have lost the capacity to act unilaterally, or to single-handedly prevent the Union from taking certain actions or decisions.

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