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The EU as Compound Polity

The EU is not a state, nor is it like any other international organisation. So how should we define it?

Before coming to SOLID’s own definition, it is helpful to introduce a more conventional spectrum for debate about the nature of the EU. O’Leary is wary of overstating the EU’s uniqueness, something the European Studies literature is wont to emphasise. He considers the EU straightforwardly to be a confederation of sovereign states, albeit with aspects of consociational decision-making. Others see the EU as going further, exhibiting the characteristics of a emergent federation, given the increased concentration of executive powers, elements of powerful supranational jurisprudence, and the development and increased deployment of statelike symbols (such as a flag and official anthem). But instead of restaging battles over where to situate the EU on the federalism spectrum, might there be an alternative way of engaging with this debate, starting not from an audit of formal institutions and their powers, but from seeking to make sense of the key events that are shaping contemporary European politics?

In an article in the Journal of European Public Policy, SOLID’s principal investigators – Maurizio Ferrera, Hanspeter Kriesi and Waltraud Schelkle – seek to do just this. They have defined the EU as a compound polity. What exactly do they mean by this? And what are the insights and implications that spring from this definition? The two sections that follow address these questions in turn.

What is the EU Compound Polity?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to describe something as compound is to say it is “made up by the combination of several elements or ingredients. Artificially.” Ferrera, Kriesi and Schelkle define the EU in these terms: as “a decentralized, often fragmented political system, resting on two sources of sovereignty, the member states and their citizens.” Such an expansive definition might also apply to federations, but the authors clarify that in the EU “citizens have much less voice”, given that the EU is also “a compound of robust and cohesive political entities”: mature and sovereign nation states that already supply extensive public goods. Unlike O’Leary, the three authors stress that the EU is in fact “historically new”, and that its compound nature is exhibiting peculiar developmental patterns. A fruitful way to think about the EU’s novelty is to plot its configuration of the three Bs: bordering, binding and bonding, against other system archetypes. Table 1 shows how Ferrera, Kriesi and Schelkle do this.

Table 1. From Ferrera, Kriesi and Schelkle (2023)

Fragility and Resilience: Implications of the Compound European Polity

How are we to understand the very real-world implications of this abstract arrangement? As in chemistry, compounding peculiar political elements in an unprecedented experiment can lead to volatile reactions. SOLID’s research is concerned with a repeated, characteristic double action-reaction in EU polity development: fragility and resilience. Table 1 shows that the EU is made up of comparatively thin bonds of loyalty, where ‘Europeanness’ remains a second-order identity typically subsumed by national identity. For many Europeans, loyalty to the project is not immutably unwavering or ideological, but conditional on it providing net positive gains and better governance outcomes than their national government would alone. Indeed, unlike federations and unitary states with devolved regional powers, the EU explicitly offers an exit option for its member states, and this has been exercised by the UK. This second-order loyalty means that cross-border, European policy crises involving high distributive stakes – like those over the Euro, refugees, Brexit and Covid-19 – are prone to politicise the polity itself, escalating to existential polity crisis that threatens the EU edifice. As the three authors state: “contestation over who decides about a policy (sovereignty), who gets what when and how from the policy (solidarity) and who we, the addressees of a policy, are (identity) can arise over any element of the polity: boundaries, authority and loyalty.” These are the compound origins of EU fragility.

But what about resilience? Ferrera, Kriesi and Schelkle summarise how SOLID’s research has so far located four principal ways that the EU operates to defend and maintain itself when the polity is existentially threatened. These are first, rhetorical action, whereby European leaders use purposive speech in public fora (such as newspapers and press conferences) to shore up public opinion, legislators and markets. These acts were especially common during the Euro and Covid-19 crises, perhaps most famous among them, Mario Draghi’s statement: “whatever it takes”. Second, externalisation, or a strategy of placing the policy problem beyond the EU’s borders. This is an approach that has enjoyed more success during the Brexit process than in the acrimonious and scarring battles over the refugee crisis. Third, Covid-19 highlighted how the very fragility of the EU centre confers incentives for cooperation and compromise that helps bridge member state divides. This is strength in weakness. It is something of a feature rather than a purposive strategy, more akin to an automatic political stabiliser, that leads to forms of purposive action of the other three types. Finally, polity maintenance is more of a catch-all term that summarises responses to the threats stemming from the compound EU. This is an important and frequently-used concept in SOLID’s research, and more detail about it can be found here.

Table 2. From Ferrera, Kriesi and Schelkle (2023)

So, to summarise, SOLID understands the EU to be something of a volatile political compound. It is an historically novel system built on a unique foundation of mature, sovereign member states, and concerned with redrawing and reconciling their competing claims to sovereignty, solidarity and identity as it seeks to break down borders between them. This development leads it to episodes of acute fragility, manifest in the frequent polity crises of recent times, but also it is imbued with modes of resilience that kick in to stabilise member state relations. So-far, in the crises of the past decade studied by SOLID researchers, this has stopped any compound reaction from spilling out of the vial, resulting in wholesale decline and disintegration.

This project is funded with a Synergy Grant by the European Research Council under Grant Agreement n. 810356. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.