Having read, heard, and contemplated about the idea of the European Union as a beyond the nation state project, the question of what exactly the European Union is becomes the more interesting. Understanding the EU in a particular way will also lead to us not only assessing it and its functionality from a particular angle but will also create certain expectations. For example, your expectations of the European Union’s democratic character will differ depending on what you think the union is an instance of. While you expect your state to be democratic, do you expect the International Energy Agency, a classic international organization, to exhibit the same democratic traits? Most likely not, right? What then is the European Union?
Some scholars argue that in fact, the European Union is nothing but a federation or confederation. Because we can clearly distinguish between several layers of policy making, such as the National and the European one. Others argue that it still is first and foremost an international organization with signature member states. Thus, in essence, similar to the United Nations or the African Union. Others again argue that the EU is a political regime that could be seen as a set of rules regulating the operation of an institution and its interactions with a society.
Some argue that the union cannot really be compared to any other political entity we know, and as such, constitutes a perfect example of a sui generis entity, a special, one-of-its-kind organization. Almost all scholars, though, agree that the European Union certainly is not a state, let alone a nation state. Despite this, some influential scholars, led by American academic Vivien Schmidt, used the very same features that characterized the nation state to define the EU. For the sake of the argument, let us engage in this analytical exercise and do the very same. Whereas before, we argued that sovereignty of the nation state was indivisible.
At the EU, this is shared between not only the EU institutions and member states but also their regions, which can sometimes act independently. Whereas a state’s boundaries were fixed, those of the EU are variable, both in geographical terms, think of where the EU might be enlarging to in the future, and in policy terms. Switzerland is not part of the EU but is in the Schengen. Equally as the United Kingdom, while being part of the EU, keeps using its British Pound rather than the euro. Also, the EU cannot be set to both a coherent identity. As there is not a clearly defined European nationhood, we are better off speaking of a composite identity on the EU level.
Yes, there are some identifiable aspects at EU level, such as an anthem, the EU flag, or the euro, but citizens still identify with their member states first and foremost. That does not, however, mean that they don’t feel European at the same time. Surely, the EU does not exhibit one well-established government. Rather, at the EU level, we are talking of multi-level governance, which means that policy making takes place across a large amount of layers– regional, national, European, and international. Finally, when talking about the European Union, rather than speaking of cohesive democracy as it is associated with nation states, we may think of fragmented democracy.
While government by and of the people is rather weak at the European Union, the union likes to claim that it produces not only government for the people but also government with the people, meaning that it tries to involve the EU population in decision making through, for instance, involving interest groups. Taking this into account, the European Union certainly cannot be seen as a nation state, but it also seems to be more than an international organization. Consequently, Vivian Schmidt calls it a regional state, which is an interesting position, wouldn’t you say?