In the last few posts, we have considered the way politics is situated within the EU, focusing on the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and its ‘underhanded’ way of furthering negative integration from a position that is above and beyond the reach of national politics and publics. This minimizes the political risk and opposition that has to be confronted by the EU at large, precisely because of the unique position of the ECJ (both with respect to its being removed from democratic publics and with respect to its extensive practical capacities). The evasion of political risk and opposition by conducting politics through ‘non-political’ means (Scharpf 2009) allows the EU to safeguard its sole basis of legitimacy, namely the output legitimacy that is secured by addressing (only) agreed-upon community problems. It is forced into this position by its inability to rely on other channels of legitimacy; roughly put, it does not have access to input legitimacy because of the lack of a European public sphere that is able to generate a community that remembers, experiences and communicates at the European level (Kielmansegg 2013).

Once we accept these constraining conditions on the contents of European politics, there are two abstract choices: strive for European integration only insofar as this process can be supported by means of input legitimacy (for instance, by democratic means), or put all of Europe’s cards on the route of output legitimacy; and, as we have seen, this must result in the prevalence of ‘non-political’ supranational institutions like the ECJ and a one-sided tendency towards negative integration. We find ourselves in a regional state that has clearly made the second choice. Integration is better than leaving the countries of Europe to their own devices. But why? In order to begin to understand this, let us delve into what Giandomenico Majone has called ‘fait accompli politics’ as the foundation of the initial permissive consensus with which Europe was regarded. ‘More Europe’ was and is often still seen as a political necessity; an idea that is increasingly the topic of politicized debate.

From the very start of the European project, it has been characterized by the pushing forward of ambitious goals without much concern for either feasibility or popular support (Majone 2014, 49). Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner and erstwhile lieutenant of Commission President and European key figure Jacques Delors puts in in no uncertain terms:

Europe was built in a Saint-Simonian way from the beginning, this was Monnet’s approach: The people weren’t ready to agree about integration, so you had to get on without telling them too much about what was happening. (cited in Majone 2014, 49)

In a much earlier point of our analysis, we referred to Saint-Simon in the context of Jacques Rancière’s diagnosis of contemporary political culture, which he sees as ever at risk of absorbing the political into the realm of the social. Saint-Simon had affirmed this kind of absorption and made it into an expression of hope. Saint-Simon strives for an age where politics is no longer necessary: in an ideal state, only the ‘administration of things’ would remain. As evidenced by Lamy’s quote, the political end-goal is made immune from politics itself; and by the same token the European project is reduced to striving towards a horizon that is firmly fixed in place. In today’s context, the felt necessity to move towards ‘an ever closer Union’ can be captured in terms of the so-called ‘bicycle theory’ of European integration: “integration must keep moving forward, especially in times of crisis, for the bicycle (that the EU is seen to be) not to fall” (Majone 2014, 59). We already know which direction European politics is headed into: more integration is always the answer, which cannot itself be put up for discussion. In this sense, it is an already established fact (fait accompli) and will necessarily develop itself in a particular direction. From the perspective of the EU’s history, this necessity has been produced by a political culture of “total optimism”; the latter being a historical term. Majone takes it from Geoffrey Parker’s description of the Spanish King Philip II, who was so convinced that providence was on his side that he refused to account for the possibility of failure (ibid). In similar fashion, Europe has never wished to consider the idea of a ‘failure state’, ignoring concerns of feasibility when it came to its policies and not providing an ‘exit strategy’ for member states until as late as 2009 (ibid, 62-66).

Majone correctly analyzes that this approach to European integration implies that “the success of a collective decision is determined by the decision-makers themselves – by the fact that they agreed on the decision” rather than on actual results, so that the possibility of failure is excluded a priori (ibid, 59). In this sense, the EU is anything but technocratic, since a technical approach to politics would work in the exactly opposite direction, focusing on analyses of (conditions of) feasibility and letting policy flow directly from them (ibid). Pace Majone, however, we should be equally careful to avoid saying that we have described a European “emphasis on the process of decision-making rather than the actual results” (ibid). The input-oriented perspective of the process by which certain policies are agreed upon does not make a dramatic return, as is suggested by the idea that the process of decision-making is emphasized: far from it, in fact. Instead, emphasis is put on the perceived need for any decision that will show that decisions are being made – ‘problems are being solved!’ – which is precisely output-oriented in nature.

Many weeks ago, we saw that Rousseau revolutionized traditional belief in providence by making it about mankind’s ability to perfect itself over historical time. Parker’s Philip II was still a believer in a more straightforwardly divine guarantee that the world is, on the final analysis, good. Both of these beliefs about the direction that politics (and the world more generally) is headed into are ontologically motivated. This is also the case for Europe’s political culture of total optimism, but there is an additional, more opportunistic-political motive in play.

We have discussed at length how institutions like the ECJ stand in a position over and above the conventional control mechanisms that would attach to them in the context of a nation-state. This in fact provides politicians with an incentive to pay lip-service to optimism, since their interests can be furthered without the pressure from opposition parties that would arise ‘at home’; and, what is more, with superior legal status (ibid, 60). Such optimism about Europe can thus be cynically exploited in ways that are far removed from the peoples of Europe, and this is in itself an argument against what Jürgen Habermas calls the “self-immunization” of the European institutions (Habermas 2015, 100). Such self-interested lip-service, while difficult to trace, would to some degree explain the moralistic fervour with which the “determinism of negative integration” is, as already referred to above, made into a matter of principle and (European) identity( Michelsen & Walter 2013, 336-337). We can here recall Bourdieu’s critique of European institutions, claiming that they practice a policy of depolicitization using the vocabularies of freedom, liberty and liberalism. Rather than liberating Europe, such policies grants “economic determinisms a fatal stranglehold” by revoking national regulations: in other words, by pursuing integration by negative means. What is worse, the idea of a “truly European Europe” ends up functioning as a decoy that enshrines this depoliticization rather than counteracting it (Bourdieu 2002, 31; 38-41).

More in keeping with Philip II and Rousseau, there is an ontological component to the belief in ‘European perfectibility’ as well. This involves the idea that the nation state is no longer viable (Majone 2014, 60); a position that has been defended in many different contexts by the very same Habermas. We will consider such arguments in future posts.


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