>The EU: Viable or friable?

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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s  What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.  

The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning  of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.

Such a comparison Glencross argues, means we need an expanded concept of ‘viability’ embracing not only the formal allocation of institutional and legal powers and ‘competences over competences’, but also actors’ understandings of the purposes of the union and whether popular sovereignty is ultimately invested in the centre, the member states, or both. Applying this framework, he identifies two distinct approaches to achieving viability in a semi-federal, semi-confederal state unions like the EU or the early US: ‘1) voluntary centralization’ where the different actors negotiate their way to a stronger, more integrated state; and 2) ‘dynamic equilibrium’ where institutional and political ambiguity – far from being a problem to be solved – is the key to viability.
The viability of the antebellum US, he argues, was in the end fatally undermined by an emerging politics of ‘voluntary centralization’, while the EU has survived precisely by sticking to a pattern of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In this light, projects to fix the European Union through various forms of democratization and constitutionalization appear best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. There are, Glencross acknowledges, important differences between the two cases: the US was created through a constitutional instrument, the EU through an inter-state economic treaty; the US had a nationwide party system with a dominant cleavage (slavery) dividing member states, the EU has only an embryonic party system with many cross cutting divides between states. Nevertheless, he argues, the parallels are sufficient to merit serious rethinking about the reform of EU governance.
What Makes the EU Viable? is, admittedly, an uneven book given, in places, to opaque and overlong and over-defensive theoretical asides as books-of-PhD-dissertation often do. It would also benefit from more simply explained engagement with mainstream EU studies literatures and the burgeoning subfield of historical democratization. However, at bottom, I thought it succeeded in its objective of asking a big and timely question and deploys anachronistic comparison to deliver some genuinely unexpected and worrying answers. Academic viability, if ever I saw it.
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