[Blog] Reading Sample: Europe Entrapped

In Search of Political Agency

In the history of the EU, it was widely believed that an “ever closer” integration will be driven by emerging necessities that lead European elites to find incremental ad hoc solutions without stirring up much attention or mobilizing demands for participation and represen­tation on the part of European citizens. Whenever a friction comes -up, it will be (and in fact often has been) dealt with, according to neofunctionalist integra­tion theory, through the inconspicuous and quasi-spontaneous stepping up of sovereignty transfers and emergent new modes of cooperation needed to avoid negative spill-over effects.[1] In a step-by-step fashion, integration will generate societal actors who pave the road to more integration, making the whole process halting but irreversible. The legitimacy this mode of the integration process requires is of the “output” variety, earned by technocratic decision makers through their ongoing production of relatively uncontroversial and  inconspicuous policies made “for” the people yet in no plausible sense “by” it.

The current banking and associated Euro, fiscal and economic crises are the first instances in the history of the EU where this logic no longer applies. Member state governments are no longer ready to transfer sovereignty, pool resources, and practice cooperation to the extent that appears “functionally” necessary. Confidence in the quasi-automatic adaptation of a neofunctionalist sort and its basis in the. “permissive consensus” of constitu­encies is no longer warranted. The stakes involved have grown too high for that, and, instead of the neofunc­tionalist auto-pilot, “real” agency needs to step in and to engage in “political” (i.e., strategic, resourceful and contested rather than adaptive) action.

The crisis condition itself raises very basic issues concerning’ the further viability of the integration that has been reached so far and the desirability of its con­tinuation. As policy decisions on crisis management involve issues of redistribution and conflicting claims on resources, the conflicting interests of stakeholders must be processed through an institutional machinery gener­ating “input” legitimacy through democratic proce­dures. The key question is where such political agency might come from and what might inspire it. On the other hand: What a (currently shrinking) minority of EU enthusiasts among elites and non-elites would dream of for many years in terms of deepening the integration process, has suddenly, under the impact of the crisis and also under the threatening impact of growing political forces of Rightist populism threatening to demolish the unfinished integration project, turned into an urgent rescue operation that makes the building of fiscal and economic governing capacities at the EU level a plain imperative. In what follows, I shall review a number of answers to that question. Can it be the intrinsic com­mitment of Europeans to further the project of deeper political integration? Can it be an alliance of major political forces and long-term economic interests that will inspire a vigorous and widely supported strategy to end the crisis? Can it be the agency coming out of the institutional repertoire the EU has acquired so far — the ECB, the EC, the Commission, the EP? Or can it perhaps be the determined and benevolent leadership of one or a small group of countries willing to take responsibility for the building of a post-crisis EU?

The elections for the EP of May 2014 have not resulted in anything like a clear pattern of agency. Instead, there are two sets of worrying outcomes, one substantive and the other procedural. The substantive outcome is the vast increase of Rightist populist votes and the new strength of a variety of Rightist anti-European voices in the EP. Gains of the respective parties were strongest in France (with the triumph of Front National), the UK (with that of UKIP) and Denmark. Proponents of EU integration may derive some comfort from the fact that these parties all engage in (negative) politics of rejection and protest without having much of a shared policy or strategic vision on how the economic and institutional crises might be overcome other than by calling for withdrawal and exit. Moreover, Rightist populists have notorious difficulties of forming alliances among themselves, to say nothing about forming an alliance with Syriza-type Leftist critics of EU integration policies. Nevertheless, a vigorous politics of obstruction is to be expected from these forces that pro-European party groups within the EP will have to withstand by forming analliance on key policy and reform decisions or, if failing to do so due to the temptation of right-of­center parties of the EPP alliance, to outcompete the far Right by steps towards timid self-assimilation, have to face stagnation and paralysis.[2] Also, it is striking that the countries with the highest increases in right-wing anti-European shares of the vote are in no way those, with the limited exception of Greece, hit hardest by the debt crisis and its social devastations. To the contrary, the Right became or remained strong in the core, includ­ing, in addition to the three countries just mentioned, Germany, Finland, Austria and, with some qualification, the Netherlands. This suggests that popular fears have been an important factor in these countries — be it the economic fear of having to foot the bill for other Euro zone members’ debt and/or the cultural fear of inward migration from other EU member states and/or the political fear of the specter of “foreign rule” originating from “Brussels.” Rightist populists object to the EU and Euro zone policies not because they inflict misery and unemployment but because they are (or might become) overly generous in terms of transnational burden-sharing and excessively liberal concerning mobility rights. Another notable substantive outcome is the evi­dence that, without a single exception, the eleven post-Communist new member states show turnout rates that are (often far)[3] below the (unweighted) EU average of 43%; for electorates. in these countries, issues of European integration seem still to be largely a remote side show.

As to the procedural outcome, a tangle has resulted from the election outcome that consists in three overlapping cleavages. While the election campaign was based on the duel, to be democratically decided by voters, of Spitzenkandidaten nominated by EU-wide party alliances of center-left vs. center-right parties, the immediate aftermath of the election saw the rise of an inter-institutional cleavage (EC vs. EP), which in turn was driven by a cleavage of member states (with the UK and others being opposed to either of the candidates for the Commission presidency). Taken together, the sub­stantive and institutional outcomes and patterns of con­flict of the 2014 EP elections do not forebode well for the democratic quality and legitimacy of European pol­icy-making of the European Parliament and its capacity for agency.


[1] The classical source is Haas 1961.

[2] If such inertia of a centrist alliance between PES and EPP suffering from “grand coalition” symptoms is to be avoided, all depends on the capacity of the Green and united Left party groups in the EP to provide the socialist and social democratic bloc with an offer of credible and viable cooperation.

[3] The extreme case being Slovakia with a turnout of just 13%.


offe 18 02 BClaus Offe is a renowned German political scientist and sociologist. His new book “Europe Entrapped” deals with the political contradictions currently present in the EU, and more about it can be found here.

Claus Offe completed his PhD at the cradle of the so-called “Frankfurt School”, the University of Frankfurt, and his Habilitation at the University of Konstanz. Currently, he is a Professor of Political Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, but has done research and taught at many universities around the world, amongst others the Australian National University, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and the New School University, New York.

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