Book Review: Which European Union?

Sergio Fabbrini, Which European Union? Europe After the Euro Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). 376 pp., €25,37 (paperback), ISBN: 9781107103948.

How many visions of the European Union (EU) are being propounded in Europe today? Can they coexist or do they rather collide? Has the Euro crisis made them more or less plausible? These are the questions that Sergio Fabbrini asks and answers in this book, which has received already wide acclaim, in addition to providing his own vision of the EU of the future.
Given the complexity of the questions raised, the answers are also necessarily complex and demand attentive reading. In order to answer these questions, Fabbrini adopts a comparative politics approach he contrasts to the still largely hegemonic (in EU studies) international relations approach, and which he organizes in a very personal manner by creating analytical categories and producing a distinct vocabulary the reader needs to acquire in order to follow the argument. The book is divided into three parts. Part I is an analytical account of the evolution of the EU. Part II focusses on the three perspectives that have vied for hegemony throughout the EU’s existence, economic community, supranational union, and intergovernmental union, and which have emerged with particular clarity during three critical junctures, the failure of EDC in 1954, the Maastricht Treaty of 1991, and the Euro crisis of 2009. Part III looks at likely future development of the EU to which Fabbrini contraposes his own vision, a compound union for the Euro-area member states.
I will reproduce the backbone of Fabbrini’s complex argument by organizing it into ten steps, asking some questions of my own along the way.

  1. Currently the EU is governed by a dual constitution that was introduced in Maastricht when the Treaty on the EU regulated the Single Market through a supranational constitution and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) through an intergovernmental constitution. The coexistence of these two constitutional regimes is a problematic feature of the EU. Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) fell, as it were, between the cracks sharing features of both constitutional regimes.
  2. The main cleavages in today’s Europe are still interstate cleavages—a statement that could be more problematized—and consequently the units of Fabbrini’s analysis are member states, treated as if they had preferences, visions, and wills of their own.
  3. A fundamental analytical distinction is drawn between nation-states and union of states and particularly between federal states and federal unions, the former being the result of the disaggregation of formerly unitary states and the latter the result of the aggregation of formerly distinct states (federal theory, according to Fabbrini, does not entertain this distinction but implicitly assumes that all federations are federal states). The reader must accept this somewhat apodictic dichotomy in order to follow the rest of the argumentation, but one is left wondering whether federal states and federal unions are not in fact the same constructs at two different stages of their development.
  4. In federal unions, power is separated along two fundamental dimensions: a vertical dimension, between the federal center and the federated units (of different sizes), and a horizontal dimension, among institutions representing different aggregations of citizens at the center. Fabbrini insists that the different population size of the constituent units of federal unions requires a careful balancing of states’ and citizens’ interest representation at the center through multiple separations of powers. The two examples of federal unions that Fabbrini produces, the United States and Switzerland, are characterized by many common traits (among which the original need to defend themselves against an external threat) but display a lower degree of dishomogeneity among federated states/cantons than the current EU (which for Fabbrini is so crucial). The original 13 colonies that federated into the United States had populations ranging between 442,000 (Virginia) and 46,000 (Delaware) (less than 10:1) according to the 1790 national census, hardly a huge disparity; while the difference between the most populous canton (Bern) and the least populous canton (Züg) in 1815 was of 291,000 to 12,500 (more than 23:1) according to official historical statistics, a somewhat more significant disparity although compensated for by other features such as a common language. Given the delicate and difficult balance, Fabbrini claims that a written constitution is necessary to regulate the decision-making powers of each component of these multiple separation of powers systems.
  5. The EU is in fact a union of states and potentially a federal union, but it is not organized as such because it lacks a proper constitution that orders the functioning of the political system not only by apportioning competences between levels but also by attributing and regulating powers among different institutions. The EU, rather, has a material constitution, given by the constitutionalization of the Treaties, which however is not conceived as a basic law, but rather as a text that disciplines decision-making in different policy areas (and for this reason, and for the way in which the treaties are interpreted by the European Court of Justice, it is a material or empirical constitution).
  6. Therefore, the multiple Europes of which the book title talks about are not different-speed Europes, but fundamentally different visions of what the EU should be. By and large, in Fabbrini’s analysis each member state subscribes to one and only one vision of Europe and is enlisted in one and only one constitutional camp, an aspect of the argument that descends from electing states as units of analysis and which could perhaps be more nuanced.
  7. The main critical junctures that have marked the life of the EU are:
    1. The postwar period and particularly the fateful decision of the French parliamentary assembly to vote against the creation of a European Defense Community, which would have consolidated the supranational vision of the Community (instead, only the economic—Common Market—aspect of the community could be pursued, which induced other member states to embrace this purely economic community vision as the only desirable vision);
    2. The Maastricht Treaty which, while extending the competences of the Union to areas close to core state functions, entrusted these policy areas to an intergovernmental regime, thus inaugurating the dual constitution later confirmed by the Lisbon Treaty, which also runs through the EMU;
    3. The Euro crisis, which impressed a new spin onto the intergovernmental management of EMU, by increasingly entrusting the management of monetary policy to a ruled-based economic creed and to technocratic institution and the management of fiscal and budgetary policies to the (hopefully loyal) coordination among Euro-area member states’ executives, thus shielding both from accountability checks at either EU or member state level.
  8. The three visions recalled above—economic community, supranational union, and intergovernmental union—are ruled by different principles: while the economic community and the intergovernmental union visions require simple cooperation among member states, which remain fully sovereign and legitimately so in all other areas, the intergovernmental union vision requires coordination among member states. And while sovereignty is simply shared in the first two cases (a term drawn from federalist theory), it is pooled in the third (a term used by liberal intergovernmentalists to denote a less intense kind of communalization of the respective spheres of authority).
  9. Fabbrini’s main, but certainly not only, argument is that the last critical juncture, the Euro crisis, has induced heads of state and government to adopt a decision-making strategy that has given a new spin to the intergovernmental union perspective, basically recalling all decision-making powers to the Council and the newly institutionalized European Council (which should properly be conceived as an executive and not as a legislative body) and marginalizing both the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. This apparently expedient decision, contrary to expectations, has proven both ineffective and illegitimate: ineffective because coordination is more easily pledged than practiced and illegitimate because it has blurred the necessary distinction between executive and legislative powers.
  10. Fabbrini’s suggestion is to restore the rightful distinction between executive (European Council and Commission) and legislative (Council and European Parliament) institutions so as to allow them to check each other out and find a modus decidendi–the essence of a compound democracy. This should however happen only within the limited circle of the Euro-area member states, as these alone are supposedly interested in creating a union of states and in operating as a compound democracy.

Apart from possibly finding some of the analytical distinctions created along the way difficult to grasp and to retain, the reader is also left wondering whether it is really reasonable to impute such clear preferences and visions to member states, for example to the UK or Denmark (supposedly proponents of an economic community), to Germany (supranationalist until Maastricht but then increasingly more intergovernmentalist), or to France (mostly intergovernmentalist), without exploring the many other sources of disagreement that cut across them and all other member states or without wondering whether the Euro-area member states are really so internally cohesive or they are not also traversed by many other debilitating cleavages. While this is by now the standard manner in which, even in academic debates, we discuss the EU—imputing singular preferences to member states and national constituencies as if they were individuals—readers with an interest in how these preferences emerge, are negotiated and adjudicated and hence interested in the politics of European integration, may be slightly disappointed.
But since this was not Fabbrini’s aim, which was rather that of exposing the inner working of the institutional logic inherent in different constitutional regimes, he can hardly be criticized for not providing such analysis and rather for sticking to a comparative institutional analysis. The book however makes for an absolutely compelling read and represents a strong and distinctive voice in the debate on today’s EU.

Simona Piattoni, University of Trento

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