Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


1. Is Functionalism Dead?

Much of the current discussion is based on the view that the functional method worked out by the Monnets and the Schumans, based on concrete objectives and gradual change, has been outlived. The Maastricht ratification debates have signalled a deeply-rooted dissatisfaction with decision-making processes based on accommodation among the elites and a widespread disenchantment about the rather obscure EU system. It has become commonplace to lay the blame for this situation on the functionalist path followed so far: deliberate avoidance of discussions on the ultimate (political) objectives of European integration and the multiplication of ad hoc co-operation schemes, it is said, have lead to a situation in which citizens are unable to make sense of the present construction. Mr Fischer was most explicit in this respect, stressing that the current maze of EU activities was largely the result of `inductive communitarisation as per the Monnet method.' This led him to plead in favour of a radical shift, which would ultimately lead to a federal-type arrangement:

In the past, European integration was based on the `Monnet method' with its comunitarisation approach in European institutions and policy. This gradual process of integration, with no blueprint for the final state, was conceived in the 1950s for the economic integration of a small group of countries. Successful as it was in that scenario, this approach has proved to be of only limited use for the political integration and democratisation of Europe. ... [T]oday a crisis of the Monnet method can no longer be overlooked, a crisis that cannot be solved according to the method's own logic.

The demise of functionalism is generally attributed to two related factors. First, it is perceived as an intransparent method, unable to respond to the current aspirations of democratic control over the rulers: if the objectives of the whole venture are not clearly spelt out, how can it be democratically legitimated? Second, comes the fear of being trapped in a system from which evasion would no longer be possible-a fear largely fed by reconstructions of integration as a sequence of `spillovers', i.e., the process by which sectoral co-operation schemes create the need for further integration in neighbouring areas, leading to a gradual erosion of national sovereignty, which no-one is willing to accept anymore.

Yet, these misgivings largely stem from a simplistic view of the integration process. With all due respect for the Founding Fathers, it is naïve to depict them as architects of a system supposed to lead to a would-be model.1 They were rather talented political entrepreneurs, able to transform apparent dilemmas into positive-sum games and to convince the leaders of the day of the wisdom of their views. Likewise, one could argue that spillovers were far from automatic or conflict-free: they always required a political input. This is clear for all major steps in the history of European integration. The 1992 programme was not an indirect consequence of the removal of tariff barriers, nor was the EMU an inescapable corollary of the single market. Both required political decisions in their own right, often painstakingly achieved. And I need not remind you that even in day-to-day decisions in areas where the so-called `community method' applies, national governments, represented in the Council of Ministers, often enjoy the power to oppose decisions, even though, for a variety of decisions they may prefer not to do so. The fear of a political engrenage is partly due to the pace of the integration process in the last fifteen years, and partly due to the fact that governments have often found it convenient to hide behind decisions taken by `Brussels'.

Thus, it is a mistake to depict Europe as a kind of renaissance cathedral entirely designed by a powerfully-minded architect. To stick to religious architecture, one could say it is more like a medieval cathedral, patiently built by several generations of craftsmen with the materials available to them, in response to what they perceived as the needs of their time-hence, the probably lack of coherence of the whole construction.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to resist an invitation to engage in a more principled discussion on the ideal architecture of tomorrow. Yet, a question needs to be asked: how likely is it that such a discussion will yield positive results? Past functional arrangements were not designed to deceive public opinion or to impose surreptitiously unpopular compromises. They simply reflected a fact known to observers of public policy world-wide: it is easier to achieve compromises on concrete proposals, whose costs and benefits can be (more or less) anticipated, and which can be the subject of trade-offs of various kinds, than to reach a consensus on an abstract definition of the public good, and on ways of achieving it. Visions of justice tend to vary widely: the larger the group in which the discussion takes place, and the more heterogeneous it is, the more difficult it is to find an acceptable compromise. Discussions on institutions tend to follow the same kind of logic. Everyone has their pet solutions, which often reflect national traditions. Thus, French views on the would-be European constitution almost unavoidably foresee an elected president and a hierarchy of norms, as in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, while German drafts ritually include a list of competences designed (so we are told) to avoid any centralist drift. Concepts can also be divisive: federalism, which is the antithesis of centralisation, is often seen as a synonym for uniformity and hierarchy in countries such as the United Kingdom or France, as Mr Fischer rapidly found out. No matter how incorrect these perceptions may be, they are political facts that cannot be ignored. Naturally, the symbolic value of institutions is such that they are difficult to achieve; yet, in a system of decision by consensus, compromises are unavoidable.

The history of European integration is replete with examples that illustrate the comparative advantages of a project-based approach. One of the reasons for the success of the Single European Act was its apparent modesty: far from following the European Parliament's blueprint of a quasi-federal scheme-Altierro Spinnelli's Draft Treaty on European Union-it limited itself to what was perceived by many as a minimalist programme of removal of non-tariff barriers. Once the objective was endorsed by the European Council, Treaty changes which had been vehemently opposed by some Member States a few months before-including an extension of qualified majority voting-suddenly became acceptable to all. Maastricht represents another telling example of the virtues of institutional pragmatism. The Treaty on European Union was prepared by two separate IGCs: one dealing with economic and monetary union and the other with institutional issues, under the rather uninspiring label of `political union'. The result is known: while the first exercise, following a project-based approach, led to the creation of a single currency, one of the most fundamental changes in the history of European integration, the IGC on political union will remain in textbooks for having given birth to the pillar-structure of the EU-not exactly a model of inspired statesmanship. Moreover, the most radical changes contained in the EMU part owed more to the nature of the project at issue than to purely institutional considerations. The independence of the European Central Bank, and the fact that not all Member States are `represented' on its governing board, were not decisions inspired by a sudden conversion to federalist orthodoxy but, more prosaically, a way to guarantee the financial markets and German public opinion alike that the ECB, being immune from political interference, could be trusted to pursue its `constitutional' objective of price stability.

What one reads of the intergovernmental conference currently under way would appear to confirm the difficulty of a reform-process exclusively limited to institutional issues.

We had been told it was more reasonable to confine the negotiations to a reduced agenda-the famous `Amsterdam leftovers'; the main outcome of months of discussions on these issues seems to have been to resurrect an artificial cleavage between large and small states and the prospects of reaching a satisfactory compromise seem bleak at present.

All this does not augur well for the discussion on the future institutional architecture of Europe which Mr. Fischer has invited us to engage in.

1 Schmitter (1996a:2).



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