Time to Reflect on the Nature of the EU in the Light of the Greek Crisis?

Jeremy Richardson

Emeritus Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford University and Adjunct Professorial Fellow at University of Canterbury

The somewhat controversial cover of the fourth edition of  European Union. Power and policy-making has turned out to be more relevant than we thought, as the Greek crisis unfolds. The image of Marine Le Pen against a backdrop ‘Non à Bruxelles’ was meant to convey to readers the idea that the EU had, in some eyes at least, possibly over- reached itself. It has become so powerful that forces were gathering to halt or even reverse the long period of Europeanization of public policy-making. Kathleen McNamara has, however, recently argued that public protests ,and indeed violence, should be taken as a sign that the EU may be undergoing a profound transformation and that ‘the opening up of EU politics to public scrutiny and awareness is necessary for the EU to be a mature and legitimate political entity...’ (McNamara 2015, 1).

The recent violent clashes we have seen in Greece, in protest against the bailout terms drafted at the Euro-summit on July 12th, are an inevitable reaction to what can only be described as an impositional and dirigiste style of EU government (the fashionable term governance seems quite inappropriate!). Some key aspects of the bailout conditions are pension reform; market reforms including  Sunday trading, sales periods, pharmacy ownership; privatisation of electricity transmission; reform of collective bargaining; broadening the tax base; overhaul of the civil justice system. Moreover, the agreement states that ‘the (Greek) government needs to consult and agree with the (EU) Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation’ (SN 4070/15, p4, emphasis added).

I dwell on the Greek case because it seems to me a perfect illustration of just how far the transfer of power from member states to the EU has gone. My argument in the Introductory chapter to the volume is that the EU has over time acquired for itself most of the features of western democratic states, apart from (what I regard as a somewhat outdated feature of modern states) the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Above all, it has acquired for itself, in very many policy areas, the central function of a modern state, the power to decide a vast range public policies that were hitherto the province of member states. In that sense the EU has acquired quite a high degree of sovereignty (and  as we see in the Greek case, coercive power).By so doing the EU has begun to look very state-like or as I argue, a policy-making state (Richardson 2012). This shift in the locus of power to the EU as a policy-making state obviously does cause adaptation at member state (and sub-state) level but the phenomenon is perhaps best termed ‘Euro-adaption’ rather than the commonly used ‘Europeanization’. Without in any way wishing to claim that authors who use the term Europeanization to mean domestic adaptation to EU laws are wrong to do so, I argue that it is also important to focus on the other ‘face’ of Europeanization namely the shift in the locus of public policy-making power to the EU level.  Thus, by Europeanization I mean ‘the processes by which the key decisions about public policies are gradually transferred to the European level (or for new policy areas, emerge at the European level)’.

The trajectory of European integration, and the construction of a dense European policy system, have certainly been uneven but the remarkable thing about the EU is that both phenomena have continued over time. In its own way, the Union has become adept at what Lindblom saw as a key feature of modern policy-making, the so-called 'science of muddling through'. That this muddling through process for making EU policy has produced a complex and inconsistent pattern of public policies and a very 'messy' institutional structure, even including opt-outs for certain member states, should occasion no surprise. In effect, the EU has become a gigantic 'frame-reflection' machine for the resolution of intractable policy controversies'. Actors come to the table with hugely different policy frames, yet more or less workable (albeit untidy) solutions emerge, as in the Greek case cited above. The most remarkable feature of the EU is not that it is institutionally messy but that so much EU public policy is now in place, despite the multitude of interests, institutions, and policy frames in play in the EU policy game. Somehow, the EU works as a policy-making system. In part, this is because actors have usually been able to focus on specific policy issues even when deadlocked over the constitutional fundamentals of the EU and its future. High politics disputes can hide a lot of 'business as usual'. ‘Low politics’ works quite effectively in contrast to high politics.  Interestingly,‘business as usual’ appears to increasingly expand to include what Genschel and Jachtenfuchs term ‘core state powers’. Thus, they write about ‘...the increasing involvement of EU institutions in key functions of sovereign government including money and fiscal affairs, defence and foreign policy, migration, citizenship and internal security’ (Genschell and Jachtenfuchs 2015, 1-2)

The central purpose of the new fourth edition which Sonia Mazey and I have put together is to map and explore the workings of the EU policy-making system via an analysis of  the EU’s main institutions and processes. The approach is similar to earlier editions but with a much changed team of contributors.


  • European Commission, 12/07/15, Euro Summit Statement Brussels (SN 4070/15)
  • Richardson, Jeremy (Ed.) 2102,  ‘Constructing a Policy-Making State? Policy Dynamics in the EU’, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • McNamara, Kathleen, (2015), ‘JCMS Annual Review Lecture: Imaging Europe: The Cultural Foundations of EU Governance’, Journal of Common Market Studies, DOI:10.1111/jcms.12276
  • Genschel, Philipp, and Jachtenfuchs, Markus, 2015, ‘More integration, less federation: the European Integration of core state powers’, Journal of European Public Policy, DOI:10.1080/13501763.2015.1055782


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