An inflection point in European Union studies?

Alasdair Young (Georgia Tech & Chair of the European Union Studies Association)
Alasdair Young (Georgia Tech & Chair of the European Union Studies Association)

Alasdair Young, professor of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and Chair of the European Union Studies Association (EUSA), introduces a selection of the best papers from the EUSA 2015 Biennial Conference published in the Journal of European Public Policy (JEPP). You can find Alasdair’s recently published contribution to JEPP introducing the selection of papers and reflecting on the state of EU studies here.


By Alasdair Young

The European Union Studies Association (EUSA) is delighted to announce the publication of a collection of some of best papers from its 2015 biennial conference in Boston in the Journal of European Public Policy (JEPP). The contributions went through a rigorous selection process.  They had to be nominated by the discussant of the panel on which they were presented.  Each nominated paper that was not already published or committed elsewhere was then reviewed by two members of EUSA’s current and out-going Executive Committee. The authors of the papers on the resulting short-list were provided with feedback and given a few months to revise their papers before they were submitted to JEPP’s standard, double-blind review process. Given this bottom-up selection process, the articles in this special issue do not even aspire to coherence.  Their (inadvertent) similarities as well as their differences, however, provide a fruitful springboard for reflection on the state of European Union studies, which seems particularly appropriate in the spring of 2016 as the EU confronts multi-dimensional challenges – the lingering Eurozone crisis, the referendum on British membership, the migrant/refugee crisis, and a wave of terrorist attacks.

As described by Amie Kreppel and Michelle Egan, EU studies has ‘evolved’ along with the EU. As the EU has developed and become more ‘state like,’ EU studies has changed with it.  When the European project was undergoing construction through major institutional developments the focus was on integration and the main research focus was in international relations. As the European project matured, focus shifted to explaining decision-making within established policy areas and to understanding the functioning of the European institutions. There has arguably been a further shift in EU studies as EU policy has accreted and the impact of the EU on the domestic policies of its member states has increased. As a result, the boundaries between the study of the EU qua the EU and that of its member states has become blurred. The contributions to this collection reflect each of these focal points – integration; established polity; the domestication of the EU. Two of the contributions address questions associated with integration. R. Daniel Kelemen and Tommaso Pavone focus on the process of legal integration. Ludivine Damay and Heidi Mercenier are concerned with the construction of European citizenship.  While both of these articles address questions central to European integration, neither looks at grand bargains. Rather, they look at micro-level processes of integration and approach their questions from the perspective of political science and political sociology (respectively), rather than international relations. Two other contributions treat the EU squarely as a political system. Steven Wilson, Nils Ringe and Jack van Thomme analyze what affects reelection of incumbent members of the European Parliament. Viviane Gravey and Andrew Jordan establish that some EU environmental policies have been dismantled, essentially that there has been deregulation. The other three contributions engage with the impact of the EU on its member states. Natasha Wunsch’s analysis of how the influence of Croatian NGOs waxed and waned during and after the accession process fits with the literature on Europeanization. In the contributions by Anke Hassel, Jette Steen Knudsen and Bettina Wagner as well as the paper by Deborah Mabbet, however, the focus is on domestic political processes and the EU is simply part of the context. Both of these contributions are rooted more firmly in the literature on comparative capitalism than in that on the EU.

Yet just as the EU was arguably beginning to become the new normal, a series of challenges have hauled it back into the limelight and called into question the relentless process of integration. The EU has undoubtedly faced important challenges before, but in those instances the choice was framed as between the status quo and ‘more Europe’. In the contemporary crises ‘less Europe’ has emerged as a real option: Grexit and Brexit, the (temporary) introduction of capital controls and borders within the Schengen Area. These developments suggest that European integration may very well have a ‘reverse gear,’ even if it is rather sticky.

Given how EU studies has developed in parallel with its subject, these developments should be expected to have implications for the questions EU scholars ask. There may be a renewed interest in questions of (dis)integration. At the very least, the assumption that the EU policy only accumulates no longer holds. Thus EU studies, as well as the EU, may be at an inflection point.