The movement into the “ever-closer union” that the European Union’s founding fathers had envisioned when they signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 has ultimately grown into the current EU representing a supranational entity. Composed of 28 member states, the EU is the largest economy in the world and serves over 508 million European citizens. The European Union is a supranational entity with a neo-functionalist tradition due to the institutional set-up of the European Commission (“EC”), the European Parliament (“EP”), and the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”), as well as the way in which the policy process in undertaken, especially since the start of the European debt crisis in 2009.
The first of these supranational institutions of the European Union, and arguably one of the most powerful, is the European Commission. In addition, it is also highly controversial as a result of the Commission’s purpose to operate independently from the EU member states and serve the supranational interests of the European Union altogether. The institutional set-up of the Commission illustrates how power in the EU is based on the supranational model, as the main jurisdiction within the institution, the College of Commissioners, is nominated by the prime minister or president of their respective country instead of being directly elected by the European people. Furthermore, the administrative Commission is comprised of civil servants recruited directly by the institutions (Kenealy, Peterson and Corbett, 48).This is one of the principal features of supranational institutions: they are comprised of individuals appointed to assist and epitomize the cumulative ‘European’ interest. With the Commission’s power of initiation for all legislation within the EU structure, and also negotiation, over half of all legislation in modern Europe is proposed by an unelected group of 28 Commissioners.
The transnational powers of the EC are also cultivated when its Commissioners, as well all of the administrative staff, are required to take an oath of supranational loyalty in which they swear to act “completely independent” of their nation state and “neither to seek nor to take instructions” from any government in order to act in a way that best promotes the total European interest (Article 245 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). What’s more, the organizational structure of the Commission best serves its supranational interests as, instead of delegating specialization by regions, it is instead deputed by sectors. The distribution of portfolios by the President of the Commission are functional and based on the individuals given skillset, rather than territorial and place of country of origin.This, in turn, serves to create a decision environment that is responsible for depreciating some national concerns and instead address pan-European ones.
Another supranational institution that the EU uses to further pool competences is the European Parliament. Composed of 751 members, or MEPs, the parliament is responsible for legislative, budgetary, democratic review of other institutions, and appointments (Kenealy, Peterson and Corbett, 60). Every member state of the EU is given a certain amount of seats, on the basis of population, making up the world’s largest parliamentary body.The supranational element of the European Parliament is exemplified in the fact that the MEPs do not organize themselves in national blocs, but instead in one of the eight current parliamentary party groups. Because of this, parliamentarians’ behavior is usually more influenced by party membership than it is by their country of origin. Another cause of the EP’s supranationality is the immense series of committees that much of the EP’s work is delegated to. The high number of committees represents this supranational nature because the bulk of the topics being discussed are influenced by a large amount of actors and through the process of constant bargaining, can reflect less of national interests and more of a compromise of sorts between EU officials. Currently, the 20 standing committees, are in charge of directing EU legislation through reports, suggesting amendments to all the MEP’s when they all gather in Plenary sessions to present their work and findings , and interacting with the Council on legislation. Unlike other institutions in the EU, the EP has a high degree of pluralism and represents pan-European political visions and ideologies.
In addition, the European Court of Justice is also responsible for advancing the supranational nature of the EU. The judges of the court who are selected by the nation states are responsible for ensuring that the law is being obeyed in regards to the interpretation and exercise of the EU Treaties. Starting in the mid-late 1960’s, a time of ‘Eurosclerosis’ was felt many Europe. During this time, the ECJ dominated the pattern of integration by setting pivotal foundations through various rulings onto which the EU legal system still relies on today. The 1963 Van Gend en Loos case established the precedent of ‘direct effect’ in which citizens of member states can cite provisions of Community law in their national courts. This was soon followed by the 1964 ruling of Costa vs. ENEL in which the court furthered the EU’s supranational order by instituting the ‘supremacy’ of EU law. From this ruling, in the case of a contradiction between a member state’s domestic law and that of the EU’s, the law of the European Union is superior. Lastly, the Court strengthened the single market in their establishment of the essential principle of ‘mutual recognition’ in their 1979 ruling in the Cassis de Dijon case. Now, because of the ruling, a product that was legally manufactured in one member state cannot be prohibited by another member state unless it poses a serious and grave public safety threat to the country’s citizens, in turn creating a recognition of standards (Kenealy, Peterson and Corbett, 63). These aforementioned rulings have bestowed upon the European Court of Justice the power to rule in agreement with provisions of European law instead of relying too heavily on the various preferences of member-state governments. Through their rulings, the ECJ has been able to create a hybrid de facto constitution in which the judges of the court can further the individual-based supranational law system of the EU.
The rulings of the European Court of Justice, in which they allow the EU to further strip away more power from the nation state and transfer it the supranational structure reflects the ways in which the EU approached the the European banking and sovereign debt crises that began in 2007. The first of this handover was the result of the reinforced Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), also known as the ‘six-pack’, which gave the EU more authority over financial sanctions and debt. (Smismans 351). Following this was the signing of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union in March 2012, giving more jurisdiction to the EU and its institutions concerning fiscal discipline through a balanced budget decree and an automatic correction mechanism. As Professor of Law Stijn Smismans suggests, these solutions to the economic crisis represent the “the most important transfer of sovereignty to the EU since the Maastricht Treaty” (Smismans 351).
These actions by the EU are unsurprising as the process of continuous European integration has historically involved the creation of more supranational regulations and institutions and a decrease in the national discretion of member states. As national governments are growing increasingly restricted in the setting of their national budgets, the EU has expanded its powers to set the budgetary margins and the policy options of its member states. The Italian government, for example, is powerless in regards to running larger fiscal deficits in order to counteract its persistent lack of fiscal growth. Accordingly, the solutions to the economic crises have involved a large rise of the transfer sovereignty between nation states to the supranational EU, with little to no impact from the EP or the national parliaments of these states.
As the European Union continues its multinational polity-building, the elaborate process by which EU creates policy outcomes has become even more supranational. Institutionalists view the workings of the EU as the collaboration and competition between EU institutions, exemplified by the notion that the EP and European Commission have a much more dominant ability to exert power and influence compared to their other international analogs.Many public policy academics advance that much of the policy process is only accessible to specialist expertise because of the domination of separate and often times furtive policy networks (Hayes-Renshaw, 137). Because of the multitude of actors involved in the policy process, many of the EU policies are a result of bargaining between divisional policy networks and the eclectic group of actors involved in these discussions. Due to the considerable amount of actors, as well as the anarchic state of international relations, the EU is not a sui generis entity as more channels of influence are engaging in the creation of policy and national governments of member states use EU type policy instruments with higher degrees of frequency in domestic arenas. The primacy of the supranational nature of the EU over this school of thought is further laid out in the ECJ’s Van Gend en Loos ruling in which the Court indicated that the EU is a modern type of international legal order.
In addressing the incomplete viewpoint that the EU is sui generis in nature, it is also important to examine the Council of the European Union and the European Council and the intergovernmental viewpoint that many scholars hold. Both the Council and the EC are entities that have long been used as the main arguments for intergovernmentalists in highlighting the emphasis that member states hold in the creation of EU-wide regulations. However, the argument that the nature of the EU is more supranational is superior to that of intergovernmental due to the fact that both of these institutions having pronounced supranational properties. The Council of the European Union consists of national government ministers, elected by their nationally democratically accountable governments, and must, consequently, be viewed as a mainly intergovernmental body. However, the greater part of the Council’s decisions are made under a system of qualified majority voting that requires a double majority to pass legislation. This is attained when 55 percent of the member states who represent at minimum 65 percent of the EU’s total population decide to vote on a given measure. Ergo, the Council has supranational characteristics in that governments have the ability to outvote other member states, and that sometimes the unified will of the Council will take precedence over the individual desires of certain member states. Moreover, the Council of the European Union has an extensive bureaucratic infrastructure in which the meetings of the ministers are only the conclusional stage of a lengthy policy process in which the final decisions are crafted in various meetings of the Permanent Representatives of Member States (COREPER) and by the over 150 specialised working parties and committees that make up the ‘Council preparatory bodies’.This reflects what Dr. Fiona Hayes-Renshaw and Professor Helen Wallace describe in their work titled Executive power in the European Union: The functions and limits of the Council of Ministers (1996), as a ‘government by committee’. Instead of fully representing the interests of their nation state, many of these national civil servants’ are grounded in Brussels and instead are mainly engrossed in reaching consensus on policy issues. It has rightly been argued that even the ministers are yielding to the course of political socialisation as a large number of European Union scholars have contended that these policy specialist ministers, through various interactions with the EU’s institutions and its members, end up establishing separate and distinct ‘policy communities’ in which they feel more loyalty and connection with their colleagues in these areas than with officials from their own national governments.
Similar to the Council of the European Union, the European Council, made up of the Heads of State or Government of member states, is also another major EU institution that is considered to be mainly intergovernmental. Yet, it does exhibit some supranational properties in that all agreements reached by the EC are non-binding and must be reviewed by other, more supranational, EU institutions. Also, the EC elects its own “‘permanent’ and full-time president,” that some observers, most prominently the French, view as a Président of Europe. (Kenealy, Peterson and Corbett, 59). This is due to the President being in charge of externally representing the EU on foreign policy issues, a feature more resembling that of a supranational body.
As these examples illustrate, the EU has progressively become more consolidated in the supranational structure. This advancement has also affected the decision-making process, in that ever since the Treaty of Lisbon, which laid out that most of the legislative procedures will be determined by the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, EU decision making has increased its multi-actor following of the ‘community method.’Supranational governance determines EU policy-making, with the technocratic Commission initiating a proposal for the EP and the Council. The ordinary legislative procedure is made under qualified majority voting, which weighs each member states vote in regards to their population size. It is important to note that unanimity is not a prerequisite for a decision to be taken in the Council. The Council also lacks transparency in the policy process because a large amount of debate goes on behind closed doors in the COREPER, leaving officials of national parliaments and the EP in the dark about the substance being discussed. Lastly, the EP has the ability to dismiss any proposed EU legislation with a simple absolute majority, making it easier for supranational institutions to wield their power over member states specific interests.
By examining the makeup and workings of the European Union, it becomes evident that the European Union is thus a supranational entity, that possesses a horizontal cohesion between its member states, but promotes a vertical network of authority in which member states and their populace are domineered by pan-European institutions. The complexity of the modern world which we live in has stretched the powers of the European Union and is responsible for what political scientist Chris Bickerton describes as a transition from “nation-states to member-states.” Within many of the European Union’s nation states, critical topics such as immigration control and monetary policy are determined by supranational foundations. This has served as a catalyst for the EU’s current atmosphere of a perennial state of crisis control as it has to steer clear of the possible collapse of the eurozone, handle the influx of undocumented migrants, and come to accept a reaffirmed Islamic extremism threat, accentuated most recently by the attacks in Paris, Berlin, Nice, and Brussels. This has led to the birth of what political elites term TINA politics, short for “There is no alternative.” This acronym represents the way in which these elites use as a means of justification that their loyalty to the EU supersedes that of their reactiveness to voters demands. As the nation states of Europe increasingly disassembled their post-cold-war-era corporatism countries, pan-European rules slowly began to take antecedence over many national policy choices.