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Governance without Opposition: The Case of the European Union

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2014


IT IS NOT EASY TO CHARACTERIZE THE EUROPEAN UNION (EU) AS A political system. The main comprehensive approaches have at least partly failed, and we have to admit that the EU is neither completely neo-functional, nor intergovernmental, nor pre-federal. We may call it sui generis, but this does not carry us very far.

On the other hand, we continue to apply in our analyses of the EU notions which originated in classical national democratic systems. This is true not only for the structures – above all the institutions – but for the processes as well. To add to our dilemma, recent studies on policy-making show us that the EU is far less homogeneous than one might imagine and that there are substantial differences from one policy area to another. But even if the EU is mainly a negotiating system, an authority which is clearly responsible for its outcomes should nevertheless exist. In a classical parliamentary system the government and the parliamentary majority fulfil this function. The minority may mainly oppose the majority and press for alternative solutions, or it may use its influence for reaching a compromise; it is generally agreed that a structured opposition is a constituent part of a democratic political system.

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Copyright © Government and Opposition Ltd 1998

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1 The neo‐functionalist approach, brilliantly presented by Ernst B. Haas in his The Uniting of Europe, London, Stevens & Sons, published as early as 1958, astonishingly soon after the foundation of the Common Market, is a beautiful theoretical concept: it is actor‐orientated, includes various motivations, describes European integration as a complex process, and therefore provides a time‐dimension, and contains many other interesting elements. Unfortunately, its founders believed in automatism, and when the first major stumbling block – in the person of General de Gaulle – appeared they lost faith in their own innovative paradigm. The neo‐realists took over for many years (from Stanley Hoffmann, ‘Obstinate and Obsolete? The Fate of the Nation State in the Case of Western Europe’, Daedalus, 95 (Summer 1966) pp. 862–915; to Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Negotiating the Single European Act: National Interests and Conventional Statecraft in the EC’, International Organization, 45 (1991) pp. 56–56. Pretending that the EU member states were practically the only actors which counted and that their way of doing business was, as in classical international relations, to defend their national interests in bargaining procedures. Federalism, which stressed the historic experiences of the USA or Switzerland, and which interpreted the EU as a pre‐federal political order (Carl J. Friedrich, Europe – An Emergent Nation?, New York, Harper & Row, 1969; A. Etzioni, Political Unification – A Comparative Study of Leaders and Forces, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965) is the third classical approach; in academic discussions it has lost much of its former appeal except in Germany, where the question of whether the EU will become one day a sort of federal state, still excites a number of scholars. In the late‐1980s the ‘relaunching of the EU via the Single Market project prompted a variety of new questions and research perspectives. An interesting recent attempt to integrate the major elements of Haas’s approach into an updated research agenda which would take into account the uneven construction of the EU, the process of institutionalization, and EU rule‐making, is presented by Alec Stone Sweet and Wayne Sandholtz,’ European Integration and Supranational Governance’, journal of European Public Policy, 4:3 (September 1997) pp. 297–317.

2 The only consistent way to avoid falling into the trap of notions connected with the nation‐state, is to invent a complete new vocabulary. Philippe Schmitter is certainly the scholar who has been the most consistent in this effort, inventing labels like: stato/federato, condominio, confederatio and consortio (see his ‘Imagining the Future of the Euro‐Polity with the Help of New Concepts’, in G. Marks, F. W. Scharpf, P. Schmitter and W. Streeck, see note 11 below).

3 The characterization of the EU as a negotiation system implies distinct elements. First, it indicates that the EU does not function according to majority/minority decisions. Even when these are possible, there is a high degree of preference for negotiated solutions. Secondly, during the deliberation process, more and more actors are involved which become part of decision shaping. ‘Policy networks’ have emerged which are either integrated in the formal hierarchical structures transforming their procedures, or remain outside on a level of horizontal self‐coordination. Similar evolutions can be noticed in the member states. ( Marin, B. and Mayntz, R., Policy Networks: Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Considerations, Frankfurt, Campus, 1991 Google Scholar.).

4 Everybody seems to complain about the lack of studies of political opposition, but there are few attempts to remedy this. A most valuable contribution is the recent issue of this journal on The Repositioning of Opposition’, Government & Opposition, 32:4(Autumn 1997)Google Scholar which includes both general (Geraint Parry, Jean Blondel) and theoretical (Alfred Stepan) questions and a number of country or regional reports. Eva Kolinsky edited in 1987 a volume on Opposition in Western Europe, London and Sydney, Groom Helm. One of the striking chapter headings in this book is: ‘Is there Life after Dahl?’ (Peter Pulzer) which indicates the enduring influence of the comparative study edited by Dahl, Robert A. More than twenty years earlier (Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1966 Google Scholar) Of course, there was quite a bit of ‘life after Dahl’ especially by the emergence of new ‘sites’ for opposition.

5 See remarks by Parry, Geraint and references, in ‘The Repositioning of Opposition’, op. cit., pp. 458–9Google Scholar.

6 See Potter, Allen, ‘Great Britain: Opposition with a Capital O’, in Dahl, (ed.), op. cit 333 Google Scholar.

7 See Dahl, op. cit., pp. 332ff. There are complaints that Dahl’s classification is too difficult to handle in practice (see: J. Blondel, ‘The Repositioning of the Opposition’, op. cit., p. 468 ff) and queries as to whether it could be simplified. But each adaptation is likely to remain on the level of typology, just replacing one by another. The question is: how much can a typology explain?.

8 The notion of extraparliamentary opposition (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition) became widely popular in Germany when in 1966 the two major parties (CDU/CSU and SPD) formed a coalition (Grosse Koalition) leaving just the small liberal party (FDP) to perform the role of parliamentary opposition in the Bundestag. Seen in retrospect, this coalition was just an excuse to widen, deepen and radicalize the concept of oppositional movements outside the classical party system. That is why these movements, especially in the 1970s, included elements not just against a given government, but against the system (the ‘party state’) itself.

9 Luhmann, Niklas, Theorie der politischen Opposition, Zeitschrift fur Politik, 36:1 (01 1989) pp. 2626 Google Scholar. We should certainly be cautious about applying Luhmann’s general theory of ‘binary codes’ to the study of political systems, because there is a risk of winding up with a perception of total opposition, a Freund/Feind‐Verhaltnis (friend/foe relationship) which would undermine any cooperation. But his remarks about the basic nature of majority/minority patterns, and their embeddedness in a general political construct might provide us with some clues to go beyond the elements put forward in the major studies of opposition so far.

10 Kramm, Lothar, ‘Grundzüge einer Theorie der politischen Opposition’, Zeitschrift fur Politik, 33:1 (01 1986) pp. 4343 Google Scholar. Referring in his analysis to authors like John Stuart Mill (On Liberty), Kramm analyses the conditions for pursuing the truth in public life through the institutionalized potential for contradicting it. Opposition theory should go far beyond typologies and include major elements like the public/electorate, political parties, legislature and executive.

11 Governance is in, government is out. This could be the bottom line of a research survey on the EU. A rapidly increasing number of books and articles has ‘governance’ or ‘new governance’ in their title, among them: Marks, G., Scharpf, F. W., Schmitter, P. C. and Streeck, W. (eds), Governance in the European Union, London, Sage, 1996 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joergensen, K. E. (ed.), Reflective Approaches to European Governance, London, Macmillan, 1997 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bulmer, S., ‘The Governance of the EU: A New Institutionalist Approach’, Journal of Public Policy, 13 (1994) pp. 8080 Google Scholar. Kohler‐Koch, B., ‘Catching up with Change: The Transformation of Governance in the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy, 3 (1996) pp. 239380 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A current review of the situation with abundant references is presented by Hix, Simon: ‘The Study of the European Union II: The “New Governance Agenda” and Its Rivals’, Journal of European Public Policy, 5:1 (03 1998) pp. 6565 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hix wants to go beyond the pure governance approach and include traditional elements like politics and government, ‘drawing from our wealth of existing knowledge about institutions, behaviour and democracy’ (p. 55). On the use of ‘governance’ and its distinct meanings see: Rhodes, R. A. W, ‘The New Governance: Governing without Government’, Political Studies, XLIV (1996) pp. 652–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 The acquis communautaire includes the contents, principles and political objectives of the (EU, EC, Euratom, ECSC) Treaties, the legislation adopted in implementation of these Treaties, the jurisprudence of the ECJ, EU international agreements, and some internal agreements between member states. An interesting question is how far this pile of documents which is impressive more by its sheer size than by its coherence, could be made instrumental for the analysis of EU governance (see: Wiener, Antje, The Embedded Acquis Communautaire ‐ Substancing and Structuring European Governance, typescript, European University Institute, Florence, 1998 Google Scholar.).

13 In June 1997 the internal composition of the EP was: Group of the Party of European Socialists/PSE (214 members), Group of the European People’s Party (Christian‐Democratic Group)/PPE (181), Group Union for Europe/UPE (55), Group of the European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party/ELDR (41), Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left/GUE/NGL (33), The Green Group in the European Parliament/V (28), Group of the European Radical Alliance/ARE (20), Group of Independents for a Europe of Nations/I‐EDN (18); Non‐attached members: 36.

14 The best overall introduction to the functioning of the EP is still Jacobs, F., Corbett, R. and Shackleton, M., The European Parliament, 3rd edn 1995, London, Cartermill Google Scholar. European political parties and the works of political groups within the EP have recently found the attention they merit. See: Hix, S. and Lord, C., Political Parties in the European Union, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Morgan, R. and Tame, Clare, Parliaments and Parties, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1996 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gaffney, J. (ed.), Political Parties and the European Union, London, Routledge, 1996 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. From the angle of national parliaments see Norton, P. (ed.), National Parliaments and the European Union, London, Frank Cass, 1996 Google Scholar.

15 See: Hix, and Lord, , op. cit, p. 140ffGoogle Scholar.

16 Just to give an illustration: at the moment of German reunification, an ad hoc formula was elaborated to add 12 parliamentary ‘observers’ from East Germany. These were former members of the last ‐ democratically elected ‐ parliament of the GDR. Other members were temporarily added to the Bundestag itself. This created a situation similar to identical twins who had shared the same social experience up to a certain point, and then are separated into two different environments. The new EP members enjoyed their unaccustomed freedom of expression and contacts across party lines very much and attributed it to the basic values of democracy as such and of democratic parliaments in particular. But then, in due course, they found out that their friends who were sent to Bonn did not enjoy the same privileges at all: strict party discipline, no social contacts with the other side, etc., had become major elements of their daily routine. There was no question that the Strasbourg group was quite envied.

17 The common market organization for bananas was introduced in February 1993 (CE No.404/93). It was contested both within the EU and outside (WTO). It is a most interesting case in decision‐making in itself.

18 For one of the rare approaches implying new ideas, see: Weiler, J. H. H., ‘The European Union Belongs to its Citizens: Three Immodest Proposals’, European Law Review, 22 (1997) pp. 150ffGoogle Scholar.

19 G. Majone is one of the outstanding advocates of delegating regulatory policies to independent agencies (amongst others: Majone, G., Independence and Accountability: Non‐majoritarian Institutions and Democratic Government in Europe, EUI Working Paper SPS 94/3, Florence, European University Institute Google Scholar). Their legitimacy would remain on the output side by providing solutions in the ‘public interest’. Democratic participation and partisan competition, the input side of legitimacy, would then be restricted, as a consequence, to other areas. Since the EU has problems with its democratic input (absence of a European demos, shortcomings of its institutional system, predominance if identification with member states), it should, some recommend, not try to become a parliamentary system, but rather limit the perspectives of majoritarian institutions. See also: Dehousse, R., ‘Institutional Reform in the European Community: Are There Alternatives to the Majoritarian Avenue?’, in Hayward, J. (ed.), The Crisis of Representation in Europe, London, Frank Cass, 1995 Google Scholar. For a different opinion, drawing on the US experience, see Shapiro, M., ‘The Problems of Independent Agencies in the United States and the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy, 4 (1997) pp. 276–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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