Theories of European Integration

European integration as a process that unfolds over time, and the conditions under which path-dependent processes are most likely to

Theories of European Integration

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Theories of European Integration


For many years, the academic study of the European Communities (EC), as they were then called, was virtually synonymous with the study of European integration. The initially modest and largely technocratic achievements of the EC seemed less significant than the potential that they represented for the gradual integration of the countries of western Europe into something else: a supranational polity. When the integration process was going well, as during the 1950s and early 1960s, neo-functionalists and other theorists sought to explain the process whereby European integration proceeded from modest sectoral beginnings to something broader and more ambitious. When things seemed to be going badly, as from the 1960s until the early 1980s, intergovernmentalists and others sought to explain why the integration process had not proceeded as smoothly as its founders had hoped. Regardless of the differences among these bodies of theory, we can say clearly that the early literature on the EC sought to explain the process of European integration (rather than, say, policy-making), and that in doing so it drew largely (but not exclusively) on theories of international relations.

In the first edition of this volume, Carole Webb (1977) surveyed the debate among the then dominant schools of European integration, neo-functionalism, and intergovernmentalism, drawing from each approach a set of implications and hypotheses about the nature of the EC policy process. Similarly, here we review neo-functionalism and its views about the EU policy process, and then the intergovernmentalist response, as well as the updating of liberal intergovernmentalism by Andrew Moravcsik in the 1990s.

In addition, we examine more recent bodies of integration theory-institutionalism and constructivism-which offer very different views of the integration process and very different implications for EU policy-making.



In 1958, on the eve of the establishment of the EEC and Euratom, Ernst Haas published his seminal work, The Uniting of Europe, setting out a neo-functionalist theory of regional integration. As elaborated in subsequent texts by Haas and other scholars (e. g. Haas 1961; Lindberg 1963; Lindberg and Scheingold 1970), neo-functionalism posited a process of functional spill-over, in which the initial decision by governments to place a certain sector, such as coal and steel, under the authority of central institutions creates pressures to extend the authority of the institutions into neighbouring areas of policy, such as currency exchange rates, taxation, and wages. Thus, neo-functionalists predicted, sectoral integration would produce the unintended and unforeseen consequence of promoting further integration in additional issue areas. George (1991) identifies a second strand of the spill-over process, which he calls political spill-over, in which both supranational actors (such as the Commission) and subnational actors (interest groups or others within the member states) create additional pressures for further integration. At the subnational level, Haas suggested that interest groups operating in an integrated sector would have to interact with the international organization charged with the management of their sector. Over time, these groups would come to appreciate the benefits from integration, and would thereby transfer their demands, expectations, and even their loyalties from national governments to a new centre, thus becoming an important force for further integration.

At the supranational level, moreover, bodies such as the Commission would encourage such a transfer of loyalties, promoting European policies and brokering bargains among the member states so as to upgrade the common interest. As a result of such sectoral and political spill-over, neo-functionalists predicted, sectoral integration would become self-sustaining, leading to the creation of a new political entity with its centre in Brussels.

The most important contribution of neo-functionalists to the study of EU policy-making was their conceptualization of a Community method of policy-making. As Webb pointed out, this ideal-type Community method was based largely on the observation of a few specific sectors (the common agricultural policy (CAP), and the customs union, see Chapters 4 and 15) during the formative years of the Community, and presented a distinct picture of EC policy-making as a process driven by an entrepreneurial Commission and featuring supranational deliberation among member-state representatives in the Council. The Community method in this view was not just a legal set of policy-making institutions but a procedural code conditioning the expectations and the behaviour of the participants in the process. The central elements of this original Community method, Webb (1977: 13-14) continued, were four-fold:

1. governments accept the Commission as a valid bargaining partner and expect it to play an active role in building a policy consensus.

2. governments deal with each other with a commitment to problem-solving, and negotiate over how to achieve collective decisions, and not whether these are desirable or not.

3. governments, the Commission, and other participants in the process are responsive to each other, do not make unacceptable demands, and are willing to make short term sacrifices in expectation of longer term gains.

4. Unanimity is the rule, necessitating that negotiations continue until all objections are overcome or losses in one area are compensated for by gains in another.

Issues are not seen as separate but related in a continuous process of decision such that log-rolling and side payments are possible.

This Community method, Webb suggested, characterized EEC decision-making during the period from 1958 to 1963, as the original six member states met alongside the Commission to put in place the essential elements of the EEC customs union and the CAP. By 1965, however, Charles de Gaulle, the French President, had precipitated the so-called Luxembourg crisis, insisting on the importance of state sovereignty and arguably violating the implicit procedural code of the Community method. The EEC, which had been scheduled to move to extensive qualified majority voting (QMV) in 1966, continued to take most decisions de facto by unanimity, the Commission emerged weakened from its confrontation with de Gaulle, and the nation-state appeared to have reasserted itself. These tendencies were reinforced, moreover, by developments in the 1970s, when economic recession led to the rise of new non-tariff barriers to trade among EC member states and when the intergovernmental aspects of the Community were strengthened by the creation in 1974 of the European Council, a regular summit meeting of EU heads of state and government. In addition, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper), an intergovernmental body of member-state representatives, emerged as a crucial decision-making body preparing legislation for adoption by the Council of Ministers. Similarly, empirical studies showed the importance of national gatekeeping institutions (H. Wallace 1973). Even some of the major advances of this period, such as the creation of the European monetary system (EMS) in 1978 were taken outside the structure of the EEC Treaty, and with no formal role for the Commission or other supranational EC institutions.




Reflecting these developments, a new intergovernmentalist school of integration theory emerged, beginning with Stanley Hoffmanns (1966) claim that the nation-state, far from being obsolete, had proven obstinate. Most obviously with de Gaulle, but later with the accession of new member states such as the UK, Ireland, and Denmark in 1973, member governments made clear that they would resist the gradual transfer of sovereignty to the Community, and that EC decision-making would reflect the continuing primacy of the nation-state. Under these circumstances, Haas himself (1976) pronounced the obsolescence of regional integration theory, while other scholars such as Paul Taylor (1983), and William Wallace (1982) argued that neo-functionalists had underestimated the resilience of the nation-state. At the same time, historical scholarship by Alan Milward and others (Milward 2000; Milward and Lynch 1993) supported the view that EU member governments, rather than supranational organizations, played the central role in the historical development of the EU and were strengthened, rather than weakened, as a result of the integration process.

By contrast with neo-functionalists, the intergovernmentalist image suggested that the bargaining and consensus building techniques which have emerged in the Communities are mere refinements of intergovernmental diplomacy (Webb 1977: 18).

And indeed, the early editions of Policy-Making in the European Communities found significant evidence of intergovernmental bargaining as the dominant mode of policy-making in many (but not all) issue areas.


Liberal intergovernmentalism


The period from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s has been characterized as the doldrums era, both for the integration process and for scholarship on the EU (Keeler 2004; Jupille 2005). While a dedicated core of EU scholars continued to advance the empirical study of the EU during this period, much of this work either eschewed grand theoretical claims about the integration process or accepted with minor modifications the theoretical language of the neo-functionalist/intergovernmentalist debate. With the relaunching of the integration process in the mid-1980s, however, scholarship on

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