By Edoardo Bressanelli, Christel Koop & Christine Reh
As the unfolding coronavirus crisis powerfully shows, long gone are the days when EU decisions – including decisions not to act – left Europe’s citizens indifferent, and when the supranational was largely irrelevant for public opinion and electoral politics across the member states. Indeed, the current pandemic is only the last in a string of existential crises that have struck and unsettled the Union over a decade. These crises have politicised Europe, tested the endurance and survival of the supranational system to its core, and put EU-level actors under unprecedented pressure. Our Special Issue “EU Actors Under Pressure: Politicisation and Depoliticisation as Strategic Responses” explores how and why actors respond to the various, sometimes competing, ‘bottom up’ demands.
Our collection challenges the view – captured most prominently by the post-functionalist idea of a “constraining dissensus” – that domestic contestation necessarily limits EU-level room for manoeuvre. Strategic adaptation to the new, politically charged environment, we argue, opens space, too, for ‘enabling dissensus’. Actors may opt for self-restraint, but they may also seek to capitalise on pressures to advance their substantive goals, to expand their competences, and to bolster their long-term survival. As Frank Schimmelfennig argues in his contribution, EU-level actors have agency in response to bottom-up pressures, and they engage in “strategic politicisation management”.
In our introduction, we contend that actors will choose the response most likely to further their shared goal: the survival of the Union and, therefore, the long-term preservation (and, potentially, expansion) of their own powers. Behaviour at the supranational level, we argue, is based on how EU-level actors perceive and process the pressures from domestic politics. If acting ‘politically’ is acceptable for national political elites and the broader public, EU-level actors will attempt to politicise decision-making, behaviour or outcomes at the supranational level; if not, they will pursue depoliticisation strategies.
Depoliticisation strategies aim to ‘reclaim the shadow’ and to make new conflict over integration less visible and polarising. This is the case for the EU’s Court of Justice which, as Blauberger and Martinsen show in their contribution, engages in judicial self-restraint under high levels of contestation. This is also true, partially, for the European Commission, which, assertively, uses its power to withdraw legislation when facing domestic opposition (Reh, Bressanelli and Koop). Moreover, in the process of reforming the EU’s economic governance, Franchino and Mariotto point to a shift towards the more technocratic and implementation-focused supranational level.
By contrast, politicisation strategies are designed to move matters into the heart of politics. Hobolt and Wratil show that the Council of the EU shifts away from its consensual logic when policy issues are salient domestically; Moschella, Pinto and Martocchia Diodati observe that the European Central Bank, under conditions of domestic contestation, moves communication away from an exclusive focus on monetary policy. Bunea demonstrates that the Commission has recently increased openness and consultation beyond established stakeholders in inter-institutional negotiations, whilst Reh, Bressanelli and Koop find that an under-pressure Commission uses decisions not to withdraw legislation to pursue its own ‘responsive’ agenda. Finally, Kelemen explores a paradox of EU politicisation: a leader like Orban benefits from membership in the European People’s Party while consolidating his illiberal regime in Hungary. Growing Euroscepticism and the domestic politicisation of Europe do not necessarily lead to a stand-still. As our Special Issue shows, EU-level actors – facing intense pressure on the system they serve and on their own existence – choose differentiated strategic responses. Some limit and depoliticise EU action; others politicise and, even, empower the supranational level. As yet another crisis hits Europe, we will soon see which (de)politicisation strategies actors like the Commission and the ECB choose to pursue. ‘Business as usual’ would be a very risky and unlikely option indeed.