Why intergovernmentalism matters

Professor of the History of Political Institutions at the University of Salento (Lecce, Italy)

Matteo Scotto

Fragile Orders. Understanding intergovernmentalism in the context of EU crises and reform process

Villa Vigoni Editore, 2022

The 30th anniversary of the signing (1992) and entry into force (1993) of the Maastricht Treaty has rekindled interest in the academic and political debate on how European integration has been achieved and continues to progress. This renewed attention is undoubtedly a consequence of the increased importance of the member states, which have played a dominant role in the political processes within the European Union during the multiple crises of the 21st century. It is precisely this role of the member states that forms the subject of a highly convincing and original book – Fragile Orders. Understanding Intergovernmentalism in the content of EU crises and reform process – which is written by Matteo Scotto, a director of Villa Vigoni, an Italian-German Centre for European Dialogue.

The history of European integration is represented by two major theories that reflect its characteristics. The first theory is that of federalism, which traces back to the federalist movements that originated during the interwar period and between the end of the second world war and the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1957. The second theory is that of functionalism, a process that has played a significant role throughout the history of European integration, leaving its mark on both the European Economic Community and the European Union. Despite their evident differences and coexistence over long historical periods, these two theories have consistently been linked to the Community decision-making method, which is characterised by the role of the EU’s supranational institutions in the integration process. 

In addition to these two theories of European integration, a third theory known as intergovernmentalism gained prominence, particularly after the Treaty of Maastricht and grew in significance with the formal recognition of the European Council as an official institution of the EU through the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). Indeed, the European Council embodies the intergovernmental method of decision-making. However, this method has faced substantial criticism in recent years, especially following the financial and economic crisis of 2008, and is often indicated as a potential cause of European disintegration. 

Scotto’s book engages directly with this debate, presenting a thesis that may initially appear provocative, but that is firmly grounded and well-articulated. Fragile Orders serves as a defence of the intergovernmental method, which is typically singled out as one of the main factors contributing to the challenges of establishing European sovereignty. Scotto’s arguments can be summarised in three main points. Firstly, the intergovernmental method provides a more effective framework for understanding how the EU operates, as “intergovernmentalism fits better with reality and offers useful theoretical and intellectual tools” (p. 8). Secondly, intergovernmentalism is not “an accidental malfunctioning mechanism in the integration process. It is the ontological expression of a union of member states and their changing nature within a multilevel political system like the EU” (p. 8). Thirdly, and in contrast to a prevailing research trend, “intergovernmentalism cannot be both the cause of disintegration and the only way to reform the EU and advance the European project. This paradox is the ultimate proof of the need to rethink the conceptual link between intergovernmentalism and disintegration in the EU” (p. 8).

To illustrate the effectiveness of the intergovernmental method, Scotto analyses the case of Covid 19. The first chapter of his book (pp. 13-54) indeed focuses primarily on elucidating the effectiveness of Next Generation EU (NGEU) as a demonstration of the effectiveness and predominance of the intergovernmental method: “The EU’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic definitively challenged the alleged ineffectiveness of the intergovernmental method. In terms of both policy and politics, the NGEU is a prime example of how intergovernmental negotiation can lead to effective solutions at the European level” (p. 9).

In the next three chapters, the author examines the intergovernmental method by taking an interdisciplinary historical, political, and legal approach. He highlights the evolution of the institutional profile of the European Union after the Maastricht Treaty (which is considered a key turning point for understanding today’s European Union).  

As an inevitable consequence of his reasoning, Scotto hints at the growing influence of the European Council not only as a body of political direction (as enshrined in the Treaties), but also as an indispensable and decisive actor in European integration. In other words, he hints that the heads of state and government have vested themselves with constituent power. Despite sometimes being condemned, the intergovernmental method has proven to be fundamental to the progress of European integration and, in some cases, even to the preservation of the EU. Major turning points or key historical moments have indeed all been the result of action by national governments – for example the restoration of constitutional principles in the Lisbon Treaty, the resolution of the euro crisis, and the creation of Next Generation EU.

Another issue Scotto considers is that of democratic legitimacy. As long as there is no European electoral body in place, and European elections are essentially a compilation of national elections, the EU institutions will always face challenges in asserting their authority. As Scotto points out, “in the absence of a clear mandate for the supranational institutions, it is evident that the European Council becomes the only plausible catalyst for such political authority” (p. 67). Achieving a process of supranational legitimation, such as the direct election of the president of the Commission, is undeniably a complex endeavour. Furthermore, Scotto underlines that the European Union is not (and perhaps never will be) a federal state or a supranational union. Instead, he argues, the EU represents a synthesis of different models (like international organisation, federal union, and supranational democracy) and derives its legitimacy primarily from the internal democratic processes of the member states. Scotto argues that the European Union will never derive its democratic legitimacy solely from European elections, and that although this may initially appear as a limitation and an obstacle to the functioning of the European Union, it actually reveals a twofold profile of interests: the European Union maintains a dual level of democratic legitimacy, at both the national and European level. Moreover, in Scotto’s view, the strong anchoring in the national dimension, as emphasised in Article 4 of the Lisbon Treaty, does not necessarily mean that national and European interests cannot coincide. Or, in other words, that a political leader elected in a single member state cannot act as a European leader. 

Fragile Orders is an important contribution to European studies as it facilitates an understanding of, as Scotto says, “the relationship between intergovernmentalism and the Member States in the context of the EU reform process”.

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