Intergovernmentalism: Old, Liberal, and New
Abstract and Keywords
European integration theories help us understand the actors and mechanisms that drive European integration. Traditionally, European integration scholars used grand theories of integration to explain why integration progresses or stands still. Born out of assumptions that are prevalent in realist international relations theories, intergovernmentalism was first developed as a theory in opposition to neofunctionalism. In a nutshell, intergovernmentalism argues that states (i.e., national governments or state leaders), based on national interests, determine the outcome of integration. Intergovernmentalism was seen as a plausible explanatory perspective during the 1970s and 1980s, when the integration process seemed to have stalled. Despite the fact that it could not explain many of the gradual incremental changes or informal politics, intergovernmentalism—as did various other approaches—gained renewed popularity in the 1990s, following the launch of liberal intergovernmentalism. During that decade, the study of European integration was burgeoning, triggered in part by the aim to complete the single market and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that launched the European Union (EU). Intergovernmentalism also often received considerable pushback from researchers who were unconvinced by its core predictions. Attempts to relaunch intergovernmentalism were made in the 2010s, in response to the observation that EU member states played a prominent role in dealing with the various crises that the EU was confronted with at that time, such as the financial crisis and the migration crisis. Although intergovernmentalism is unable —and is not suited—to explain all aspects of European integration, scholars revert to intergovernmentalism as a theoretical approach in particular when examining the role of member states in European politics. Outside the EU, in the international arena (such as the United Nations), intergovernmentalism is also observed when studying various forums in which member states come together to bargain over particular collective outcomes in an intergovernmental setting.
Specific European integration theories developed alongside European integration itself. One can trace the origins of European integration theories back to the 1940s—with theories of regional integration preceding the actual start of the formal integration process. The first leading scholar to advance an intergovernmentalist perspective on European integration was Stanley Hoffmann (1963, 1964b, 1966)—a US academic with European roots. Hoffmann, who moved to the United States from France in the 1950s, was a Harvard professor from 1955 and worked there his whole life, contributing importantly to development of the Center of European Studies at that university. His intellectual mentor was the French international relations philosopher Raymond Aron (Hoffmann, 1985). Hoffmann’s intergovernmentalist approach offered a rebuttal to Ernst B. Haas’s theory of neofunctionalism (1958, 1964; see also Lindberg, 1963). Intergovernmentalism differed from neofunctionalism in that it examined the prevalence and continued dominance of member states in European integration. It stressed that state actors are able to stop, can majorly derail, and are in the driver’s seat of European integration.
The intergovernmentalist view of European integration gained popularity from the mid-1960s onward, because General Charles de Gaulle, president of France at the time, was acting as described (see also Hoffmann, 1964a). During the 1960s, the French president was able to block the entry of the United Kingdom (UK) into the European Community. The second half of 1965 was marked by the so-called “empty chair crisis,” when the French president, provoked by the Commission but also by the leaders of the other member states, opposed the expansion of the Community budget to pay for the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the move to qualified majority vote (Davignon, 2006). France recalled its permanent representatives and declared it would no longer attend Council meetings—hence leaving their “seat” empty (Ludlow, 1999, 2006). The situation was resolved in January 1966 with a compromise that enabled member states to retain a veto on issues that were of “very important national interest.” Thus, on the face of it, the intergovernmentalist approach seemed to portray well the process of integration in the late 1960s.
In the 1970s, Western Europe was confronted with various crises and difficulties, such as the oil crises, rising unemployment, stagflation, and diverging ideas about how to tackle these challenges. Caporaso and Keeler (1995, p. 37) described this period as the “doldrum” years, and Giersch (1985) called it a period of “Eurosclerosis.” During this time, neither of the dominant integration theories was attracting much attention. Given this context, it was perhaps hardly surprising that there were few attempts at formalizing intergovernmentalism in these years. Scholars such as Paul Taylor provided an overview of the usefulness of intergovernmentalism to explain European integration, especially given that the neofunctionalists themselves and others were writing about the limitations of their theoretical approach (Haas, 1975, 1976; Kaiser, 1971).
With European integration picking up momentum in the late 1980s and 1990s, there was renewed interest in explaining why European integration happened (Corbey, 1993, 1995; Tranholm-Mikkelsen, 1991). Neofunctionalism and intergovernmentalism re-emerged (some say were constructed; Rosamond, 2016) as competing grand, all-encompassing, theories, offering a single theory to explain these developments. Andrew Moravcsik, a student of Stanley Hoffmann, introduced a revised form of intergovernmentalism, which he called “liberal” intergovernmentalism (Moravcsik, 1991, 1993b, 1998; see also Moravcsik, 2020). His core message resembled the work of English historian Alan Milward (1984, 2000). In the 1990s and 2000s, numerous studies engaged with this approach, often either by criticizing it or by placing the study at hand in relation to it (Kleine & Pollack, 2018, p. 1494; Moravcsik & Schimmelfennig, 2009, p. 67). In the mid-2010s, Bickerton, Hodson, and Puetter (2015) argued that in various policy areas intergovernmentalism had dominated the post-Maastricht era. They used the term new intergovernmentalism to describe the process whereby member states are dominating the integration process.
In order to provide an overview of old, liberal, and new intergovernmentalism, the remainder of this article is structured as follows. The article surveys the development of intergovernmentalism throughout the decades, discussing what characterizes the approach during those times. The next section provides a brief overview of the theoretical approach. The following five sections successively discuss intergovernmentalism in the various time periods. The final section concludes.
Intergovernmentalism in a Nutshell
Students of European integration, particularly those working within the discipline of political science, adopt a theoretical framework to aid their scholarly analysis.1 The theories inform them where to look for the actors and mechanisms of integration, so as to know where to expect the action to be.2 Intergovernmentalism is one such theory. In the early days, European integration was seen as a clear case of international relations (IR). In IR, one studies state behavior in questions of war or cooperation. Theories of neoclassical realism take the state as the unit of analysis (Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff, 2001, p. 63). Realists theorize that power and interest are crucial for an understanding of IR (Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff, 2001, p. 67). Yet, in those cases that states cooperate, one needs theories to explain that outcome, too. Such cooperation could be based on bargaining (see Grieco, 1990; Milner, 1992; Young, 1989). The questions were about what motivated countries to collaborate in the international arena. Theories about state cooperation were taken from the prevailing theories of IR in the mid-20th century, which included the debates between realism and idealism (Hertz, 1951), the realist–utopian debate (Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff, 2001, p. 65), and the neorealist versus neoliberal debates (Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff, 2001, p. 68). According to the neorealist perspective of John Mearsheimer (1994), for instance, international institutions cannot replace states.
The origins of European integration theory can be traced back to the work of David Mitrany, who, in 1943, published A Working Peace System, which offered the building blocks of his functional theory of IR. Other important writers in the early days were the scholar Karl Deutsch, who, in various books and articles, examined the limitations of European integration by looking into political communities (see Deutsch, 1957; Deutsch et al., 1957, 1967), and Amitai Etzioni (1965), who looked into the leaders and mechanisms behind political unification. Ernst B. Haas, Mitrany’s PhD student, built on these and other writings as well as his own empirical research in the 1950s and 1960s on the European Coal and Steel Community and the International Labor Organization to produce his theory of neofunctionalism.
There is often debate about what constitutes a theory versus an approach. Originally, intergovernmentalism was less well developed, although it was based on theoretical assumptions about state actions and predictions about what mechanisms there would be (states protecting national interests). In due course, intergovernmentalism was further developed by Moravcsik by offering clearer microfoundations. Subsequent empirical studies have also contributed to narrowing down the way intergovernmentalist theory works.
The main actors in intergovernmentalism are nation states, particularly national governments. Intergovernmentalism was initially squarely in the realist tradition in that nation states are considered the principal actors and that states are treated as “black boxes” (unitary actors). There were no references to an intrinsic interest in cooperation, but an understanding that anarchy is the prevailing state of affairs within which states operate. The mechanisms are bargaining and safeguarding national interests in the international arena. From the 1990s, intergovernmentalism was developed further and the microfoundations of the theory were further spelled out. In this development, national interests started to play a stronger role in intergovernmentalism. State preferences were more clearly theorized to be based on domestic preferences, which in turn could be based on economic actors or other foundations.
One can also find scholars using intergovernmentalism as a theory of interstate cooperation—as it may occur in a large international organization, such as the United Nations (UN; Cronin, 2002) or within a given federation, such as Canada (Fabbrini, 2017), where in that context it is often referred to as intergovernmental relations (Cameron & Simeon, 2002). When applied to the European Union (EU), it is intended to explain cooperation both in areas where member states’ governments have the power to veto and in those decisions taken by voting. It can therefore also be applied in other areas of EU policymaking (the adoption of policies or direction of decisions of EU bodies), but in those cases the theory is less well able to theorize the other actors involved in the policy process.
Stanley Hoffmann’s Intergovernmentalism
The history of European integration theories traces its origins back to the 1940s—with theories of regional integration preceding the actual start of the integration process. The first leading scholar to advance an intergovernmentalist perspective on European integration was Stanley Hoffmann. His approach offered a rebuttal to Ernst B. Haas’s theory of neofunctionalism. Intergovernmentalism differed from neofunctionalism in that it examined the prevalence of member states and presumed that state actors were able to stop or could majorly derail European integration, and were in the driver’s seat. The intergovernmentalist view of European integration gained popularity because General Charles De Gaulle, president of France at the time, was acting as described and thus this approach seemed to portray well the process of integration in the late 1960s.
Although Hoffmann described his views on European integration in a number of articles and chapters throughout the 1960s (Hoffmann, 1963, 1964a, 1964b, 1966), the most frequently cited piece to contribute to the theoretical tradition of intergovernmentalism is an article published in Daedalus in 1966, “Obstinate or Obsolete? The Fate of the Nation-State and the Case of Western Europe.” In this long article, he wrote a persuasive account of historical events of the 1960s, arguing that the nation-state was here to stay. He contended that, “If there was one part of the world in which men of good will thought that the nation-state could be superseded, it was Western Europe” (Hoffmann, 1966, p. 863). He made the case that political unification could have been successful had it not been that nation-states have different issues (due to internal and external factors) so that they cannot fully be devoted to “community-building” (Hoffmann, 1966, p. 863). He found fault for this situation in two factors, which he calls “legitimacy of self-determination” and that states are the “universal actor” in the international system (Hoffmann, 1966, p. 864). Writing relatively soon after the end of World War II, the second he referred to as the “newness of many of the states” (Hoffmann, 1966, p. 864). Furthermore, he identified a few more inhibitions of the process of integration, namely that regional integration only covers part of the globe and that domestic politics are affected also by local and global problems ((Hoffmann, 1966, p. 865). Furthermore, he argued that nationalism is another challenge that must be reckoned with. In his view, the “logic of diversity” sets limits on the way in which spillover can limit the freedom of national governments (Hoffmann, 1966, pp. 873–874, 882). He argued that there is a “kind of race, between the logic of integration set up by Monnet and analyzed by Haas, and the logic of diversity” (Hoffmann, 1966, p. 881). Finally, he admitted that, although integration might work in areas of low politics (e.g., economic cooperation), it is less likely to occur in areas of high politics (e.g., security and defense).3
Hoffmann’s criticism of neofunctionalism was authoritative and convincing and over time set the tone for students of European integration to see intergovernmentalism as offering pushback to the predictions of neofunctionalism. Haas provided a response to it by writing a new preface to the 1968 (second) edition of his book Uniting of Europe that confronted the critique head on (Haas, 1968, pp. xi–xxx). By the end of the 1960s, however, an authoritative article by Donald Puchala (1971) characterized the study of European integration as one equivalent to the story of the blind men studying an elephant. In other words, it mattered what part one was examining.
Intergovernmentalism in the 1970s and 1980s
The 1970s were characterized by further support for European integration, in particular if one looks at public opinion (Handley, 1981). Various major works on neofunctionalism were published (Puchala, 1971, 1975) and some of this work focused on comparative regionalism (Lindberg & Scheingold, 1970, 1971; Nye, 1970). It is not easy, however, to point to an equivalent major contribution to the scholarship of intergovernmentalism during this time. One could categorize this decade as one in which scholars sought to study the limits of a functional approach (see also Groom & Taylor, 1975) rather than one that examined the actual contribution that could be made by intergovernmentalism. De Vree (1972) discussed the major thinkers of European integration and chose to concentrate on Deutsch, Haas, Lindberg, and Etzioni. Another example is that in Pentland’s (1973) book based on his PhD dissertation that tested developments in European integration against integration theory, “intergovernmentalism” is not even its own category.4 Furthermore, during this time, the advocates of neofunctionalism withdrew some of their predictions about European integration. Notably, Haas (1975) pointed to the limits of neofunctionalism. In 1976, he published his article in International Organization in which he acknowledged that integration had not moved forward the way foreseen in his original theory or in that of other neofunctionalists (Haas, 1976). He argued that theories of regional integration were becoming “obsolescent.” He stated as reasons that some of the underlying assumptions were flawed: namely, whether the outcome of integration would have a “definable institutional pattern,” whether regional partners would be favored in case of conflicts, and whether one should continue to expect “decision [to] be made on the basis of disjointed incrementalism” (Haas, 1976, p. 173).
As far as intergovernmentalism is concerned, during the 1970s and 1980s, the most-cited work that focused on what the substance intergovernmentalism is, was perhaps remarkably an overview piece by Carole Webb (1977) and the reworked version Webb (1983; see also Rosamond, 2016).5 Or, in the words of Hoffmann, “After the remarkable explosion of theories about integration in the 1950s and early 60s, we find a sudden drought” (Hoffmann, 1982, p. 29). Newer contributions that reviewed that time came through the work of Paul Taylor. In his 1982 article, he argued that the 1970s can be subdivided into two periods, with the second period featuring more elements “opposed to integration” (Taylor, 1982, p. 741). In his 1983 book The Limits of European Integration, he argued that there was insufficient support for the neofunctionalist predictions that deeper integration would emerge through the pooling of sovereignty. Instead, he argued that the supranational institutions were the places where national governments and representatives of member states interact. He argued that the EU “institutions failed to obtain the qualities of supranationalism” (Taylor, 1983, p. 56). Nevertheless, he acknowledged that intergovernmentalism within the European integration had a different “quality” than that in other intergovernmental settings. The chapter in his book devoted to “intergovernmentalism” (Taylor, 1983, pp. 60–92) analyzed the different intergovernmental arrangements of the European Communities, comparing the early and late 1970s. On that basis he concluded that “there was a coincidence of expectations and interests on a number of questions concerning internal and external developments. But what was missing was any sense of where the Communities were going” (Taylor, 1983, p. 87). In his concluding chapter, he also pointed to the decline of the authority of the Commission and an increase in “range and status of the intergovernmental institutions” (Taylor, 1983, p. 298). Another point about the use of intergovernmentalism as an approach to examine the developments of European integration is that, in choosing policies and issues to examine, Taylor concentrated on issues in which there are clashes of national interests. As such, observers at the time were less surprised that he found evidence for intergovernmental tendencies (Lodge, 1984, pp. 88–89). Finally, Hoffmann himself argued in a piece published in 1982 that one needs to start looking at the EU as an international regime rather than through the lens of integration theory (Hoffmann, 1982, p. 33). He also offered a few thoughts on what would need to be done to develop more of a theory: focusing on the “units,” on their domestic underpinnings, and on the impact of the external environment on the various actors, and looking at the “institutional interplay between the states and the Community’s organs” (Hoffmann, 1982, p. 30).
Intergovernmentalism in the 1990s
With the agenda set by Hoffmann in 1982 as to what would need to be done to develop intergovernmentalism more, the person to pick up the challenge was one of his PhD students, Andrew Moravcsik. Because elsewhere in this encyclopedia there is a full article by Moravcsik (2020) devoted to liberal intergovernmentalist theory, the description here is kept very short. Moravcsik labeled his approach to intergovernmentalism liberal because he drew on “domestic” forces and economic interests to inform what might be state preferences. At the same time, his work was also in line with realist theories of IR in that it assumed that states (national governments and representatives of national governments) are the main players and that they ultimately are unitary actors (Cini, 2016, pp. 73–74). Moravcsik himself disagreed with this characterization of his theory because in his view the determining factor of whether an IR theory is realist is whether “national security” is a dominant motivation, which he does not assume (Moravcsik & Schimmelfennig, 2019, p. 65). Moravcsik developed a theory of intergovernmentalism that is more rational, that is, national governments will seek to cooperate in a European setting in order to safeguard their own interests. In his own words: “In short, I argue that a tripartite explanation of integration—economic interest, relative power, credible commitments—accounts for the form, substance, and timing of major steps toward European integration” (Moravcsik, 1998, p. 4). He focused on a number of grand intergovernmental bargains. Another contribution of his work to the further development of intergovernmentalism is the way he theorized international cooperation as a framework with various stages of negotiations—national preference formation, interstate bargaining, and subsequently institutional choice (Moravcsik, 1998, p. 24).
Moravcsik’s work had connections to a few other scholars who had been reflecting on similar issues, such as Simon Bulmer (1983), who focused on domestic politics; Alan Milward, on the role of the nation state in a historical context; Robert Putnam, on two-level games (1988; see also Moravcsik 1993a); and Keohane and Hoffmann (1991) and Keohane and Nye (1977), who focused more on the role of institutions. He also wanted to make his theory more rigorous so that testable hypotheses could be derived for which support could be found or could be refuted. His three early writings on liberal intergovernmentalism that are the most influential are “Negotiating the Single European Act” (Moravcsik, 1991), “Preferences and Power” (Moravcsik, 1993b), and The Choice for Europe (Moravcsik, 1998).
Liberal intergovernmentalism made major contributions to the field of EU studies (Kleine & Pollack, 2018), including, but not limited to, finding a way to integrate liberal theory into an approach that takes states as central actors in bargaining and in developing negotiation theory further in this context. It also “mainstreams EU studies and regional integration theory” (Caporaso, 1999, p. 161). The empirical work underpinning the approach was also welcomed as major. In the words of Scharpf (1999, p. 164), “Moravcsik presents the most complete, theoretically disciplined and methodologically self-conscious historical account yet available of the antecedent conditions, bargaining process and outcomes of five intergovernmental negotiations that have shaped European integration.” Scholars have frequently reflected on liberal intergovernmentalism in researching treaty reform (Laursen, 2006, 2016). Some of these studies find that the economic aspects are better explained by intergovernmentalism than the political aspects (e.g., Laursen, 2005).
The main criticism of liberal intergovernmentalism was that it was unable to account for many of the research observations of those studying European integration in different policy areas in day-to-day politics or within informal politics that take place in the EU context, or the contribution made by major supranational institutions (Wincott, 1995). Others argued that the mechanisms of the theory had some shortcomings—for instance, how preferences are formed, whether one can assume that governments are instrumental actors in the way described by Moravcsik, or the way liberal intergovernmentalism perceives of bargaining (Forster, 2002). Helen Wallace criticized Moravcsik for being selective in how he considered some parts of the process but not others (Wallace, 1999, p. 156). Scharpf also pointed to the same challenge, namely, “Since only intergovernmental negotiations are being considered, why shouldn’t the preferences of national governments have shaped the outcomes?” (Scharpf, 1999, p. 165).
In the middle of the 2010s, based on their earlier studies, Christopher Bickerton, Dermot Hodson, and Uwe Puetter proposed a new intergovernmentalist approach (Bickerton, Hodson, & Puetter, 2015).6 They pointed to a paradox of integration: “While basic constitutional features of the European Union have remained stable, EU activity has expanded to an unprecedented degree” (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 703). In their assessment of the integration process, they noted that the expected degree of supranationalism had failed to emerge, despite increasing activity of European integration. Even in the areas that have been “communitarized” (Justice and Home Affairs, for instance), the argument went, integration had not taken place the way originally expected. In other areas (employment and social policy), there was negligible transfer of sovereignty to the supranational level. Bickerton et al. also explained that the actions of the European Parliament (EP), although having gained powers, contributed to the outcome. Drawing on their earlier work on the euro area crisis, they pointed to two intergovernmental treaties that had been signed to deal with the crisis. Each of the treaties was necessary to create new institutional structures: the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) that provides loans to member states in need and the so-called fiscal compact (that ensures balanced budgets in member states; Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 704). They argued instead that one observes a crisis of representation and that the citizens no longer provide “permissive consensus” to national leaders (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 709). They argued that, as a result, the national executives were at once both stronger yet “wary about their involvement in pan-European policymaking” (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 710). To operationalize their theory, they offered a number of hypotheses and challenged the scholarly community to test them. The topics they put forward included:
• deliberation and consensus as part of day-to-day decision-making;
• whether supranational institutions always promote deeper integration;
• whether, when delegation occurs, new bodies are created instead of empowering existing supranational institutions;
• domestic politics as independent input into European integration;
• the blurring of high and low politics;
• that the EU is currently not in equilibrium (Bickerton et al., 2015, pp. 711–716).
Their overall contribution was to point to the emergence of deeper integration without what they identified as “supranationalism” (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 717). Their goal was to reflect on the mechanisms of integration and they took issue with the classical community method that relied on supranational actors in the driver’s seat. They also pointed to a rupture in how integration happens, arguing that the current mode of governance in the EU differs from that of the 1950s (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 717).
In response to the article of Bickerton et al. (2015), Frank Schimmelfennig’s assessment was that, although it makes sense for these three authors to argue that there is a need to review the last two decades, especially given the recent crises, and the fact that Moravcsik had reviewed European integration only until Maastricht, he did not find there to be that much novelty in Bickerton, Hodson, and Puetter’s approach. His critique was threefold (Schimmelfennig, 2015, pp. 723–724). He disagreed with their characterization of intergovernmental versus supranational, he quibbled with their claims about what was new in the period after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, and he found the approach not to be a fully fledged “theory.” Rather, he contended that Bickerton et al. (2015) had provided an issue-specific approach that happened to concentrate on “core state powers.” In response to this criticism, in a rejoinder Bickerton et al. argued that their focus on the post-Maastricht period offered a novel perspective, time frame, and scope. They repeated their observation that supranational institutions have not been further empowered and that they sought to integrate legitimacy issues into the analysis (Bickerton et al., 2015, p. 735).
This article provides an overview of intergovernmentalism and its theorizing of European integration. It discusses the classic or “old” intergovernmentalism, briefly reviews liberal intergovernmentalism, and reviews the main message and value of “new” intergovernmentalism. To do so, the article has put the development of intergovernmentalism into perspective, by examining how it responded to the leading theories of the day, mostly neofunctionalism. The early days of European integration provide a useful lens for understanding how intergovernmentalism has been developed throughout the decades. This article spells out what characterizes the approach during each of the decades.
In light of the above discussion, what questions still remain? In recent years there have been numerous special issues of journals, sometimes reprinted as books (Jones & Verdun, 2005), as well as entire books devoted to European integration theories (Rosamond, 2000; Saurugger, 2014; Wiener, Börzel, & Risse, 2019; Wiener & Diez, 2004, 2009). Attempts have been made to synthesize the two approaches (Verdun, 2002c; Wolf, 2002) or to be more explicit about limitations or re-engagement of grand theories, especially in light of recent crises and challenges (Hooghe & Marks, 2019). Therefore, there is a good range of works that discuss pros and cons of various integration theories and their applicability.
There has been no shortage of discussion of the merits and limitations of intergovernmentalism. Often, major studies, PhD dissertations, and other empirical studies have taken the hypotheses that can be generated based on intergovernmentalist actors and mechanisms as a point of departure in order to find evidence in support of, or to reject, these hypotheses (see, for instance, Lehtonen, 2009; Pan, 2015). These exercises have not been able to determine “once and for all” the usefulness of the approach. Often, however, scope conditions have been made clear—intergovernmentalism is more able to deal with issues in which national governments are clearly in the driver’s seat anyway (for example, regarding treaty change). On the whole, the merit of intergovernmentalism has been to bring about discussions about actors and mechanisms, to normalize the theories of integration, and to bring to the fore the need for European integration approaches to be more limited in orientation. In a sense, it may be too ambitious to think that there could be one theory that can explain all aspects of European integration.
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(1.) The term European Union (EU) is used throughout this article, although the correct term in the past would have been European Community or European Communities.
(4.) Pentland identified instead pluralists, functionalists, neofunctionalists, and federalists.
(5.) Rosamond also offered a persuasive account of how the intergovernmentalist “school” probably was not yet a school in the 1960s–1980s but in hindsight was reconsidered as such.