Home 觀念平台 林宜亭:An Examination on the Integration theories of the European Union

林宜亭:An Examination on the Integration theories of the European Union

Christine Ie-Ting Lin

Universiteit Leiden, MIRD

As the integration of Europe has been credited as the most successful experience in regional integration, and with various theories in International Relations attempt on giving the integration process a theoretical discourse, the study of European integration has been thrived ever since, and also taken as the module of other regional integration process.  This essay will discuss the comparative advantages of the theoretical approaches of functionalism, neo-functionalism, and federalism to explain European integration and the enlargement of the European Union[1].  The selection of the theoretical approaches is based on Lelieveldt and Princen’s categorisation of subcategories of European integration study respectively on the integration and political theories of the European integration[2].


Functionalism and Neo-functionalism and the European Integration


As a supranational cooperation among states, the EU and its integration bring lights to end what realists call international anarchy, and are also the most advance in progress in regional integrations.  The scars of the two Wars are the starting point for post war European integration, though not the first attempt on achieving peace by creating institutions among states, David Mitrany and his works[3] are most associated with functionalism in European integration theories.  Functionalism shows great influence on the works of various scholars[4] and Robert Keohane also views functionalism is the first none Marxism international relations theory that can put the cooperation among states in a larger picture beyond national sovereignty[5].


Although regarding nationalism as one of the causes of the two Wars, and not a supporter of states’ absolute sovereignty, Mitrany is not on an over simplified and idealistic ground of advocating the abolishment of nation states.  Contrarily, he is in support of enhancing the capabilities of national governments, particularly in increasing social welfares[6]. The functional cooperation among states reflects the satisfaction on human needs and promotion of social welfare, and a new identity surpassing national identities will hence formed trough learning and socialisation process during integration[7].   Mitrany’s concept on forming a new recognition for identity was largely discuss in the previous years of whether a new identity of “European” starts replacing the five centuries old nation state identity after the Westphalian system.


In international institutional development, functionalism is sometimes compared with idealism and the Fourteen Points Principle drafted by Woodrow Wilson.  Nevertheless, Mitrany considers his ideas largely differ from Wilson’s because he jumps out of the box of sovereign territory and the political gain of states and take the need of people as priority[8].  He is also relatively reserved on the credibility of democratic peace theory, as he believes the alliance among democratic states is an ideological union[9], and there exists potential risks in bringing ideologies into international relations[10].  However, it is inevitable to come to the recognition of the important role that ideologies play in the process of European integration, in particular the promotion of human rights.


Emerging from its precursor functionalism, neo-functionalism rose at the time the difficulties of realising ideas of functionalism is heavily questioned by the behavioural political scientists.  Ernst Haas is the leading figure in the neo-functionalism school in making supplements to functionalism with an economic oriented integration process.  By offering a more scientific and less normative narrations, neo-functionalism believe that the starting point of a regional integration process is originated from the economic gains of states instead of a vague term of needs of the people[11].  As Haas considers both the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Community are regional institutions established to enhance the economic gains of member states[12].  And once the economic integration reaches a certain level of maturity, the needs for integration in relevant areas will be under the spotlight, which is a “spillover” effect[13].  The three different types of spillover effects, including functional spillover, political spillover, and cultivated spillover will then become the driving force of the future integration process, and lead towards a higher level and regional integration.


Despite being one of the most important IR theories in explaining the integration process of the EU, neo-functionalism also faces its critics.  Other than those from its competing school of intergovernmentalism in explaining European integration process, Chris Brown also pointed out that the EU is a political experience not explainable in terms of neo-functionalism[14].   Brown considers that the spillover of the EU is an overall political designed process, and has not always been consistent[15].  Brown points out few examples in the process of European integration to illustrate the inconsistency in political behaviours in different levels, such as the pressure groups in different EU states lobby on institutions of different levels even under the same Common Agricultural Policy[16].  The European integration experience should be seen as a one of a kind case study but not a general module for regional integration and cooperation, and it should not be regarded as the ideal type of institution building.


With both functionalism and neo-functionalism, the policy-making on national level remains no longer just as a domestic affair, rather, it’s an organic process that involves various actors in different positions and fields trying to impose their influence on the policy conduct.  The European integration has also blurs the line between domestic and international affairs, leading the regional development to a news stage in which states are under pressures from both inside and outside their boarder lines[17].  And cooperation among EU states is bound to be brought to a higher level with the common market, and perhaps even tighter for states in the Euro zone.  What the insight Mitrany provides us decades ago under the current European economic and currency crisis is that economic integration might not necessary stop the conflicts between states[18].  It takes much more than economic cooperation to achieve a mature and genuine regional integration.


Federalism and the European Integration


As a school in comparative politics, federalism alongside with other two approaches composed the comparative studies in European integration that aims on explaining the politics within the EU[19].  The main focus of the school is to conduct comparative analyses of the way of how the EU functions under the federalism scope with other federal system such as the US, Canada, or India[20].  The EU, according to federalists, bears three similar features with those federal states, including their political structure, the designation of powers and judicial system[21].


Two main levels of government, the federal government and local government, or the constituency, forming a two-tier system compose the federal political system.  The local governments are generally federal states under national political structure and member states of the union within the EU.  The EU, like other federal states, has a clear provision on the distribution of competence between member states and the EU in its most fundamental legal provision, the Treaty of Lisbon[22].  As for the judicial system, the legislation and ruling of the federal level have precedence over their lower level counterparts.


Although the EU as the most successful supranational organisation in the world, and with the Euro brings the Euro zone states even closer to each other, the debate between different formation of the EU, whether being a European Federation or a United States of Europe, has never been halted. The UK and Germany pose differently in their opinion on the formation of a federalism Europe, for the UK, federalism involves in centralisation of the federal government, in this case the EU; whilst the German position on it is to engage in a decentralisation process of the union[23].  Brown draws the attention of the discussion of federalism within the EU back to the common ground that the EU is already in a federal system despite the unwillingness of putting it under the category, just to what extend one considers the federalism to be in[24].  Murray Forsyth specifies that the EU is in fact in a federal system, and the plain evidence is that the federal government of the EU possesses certain powers that it can exercise those powers effectively even without referencing to the lower levels and vice versa[25].




It has been almost seven decades since the start of the European integration process, and despite difficulties at the door, including the economic crisis in several EU states and discussion on reconsideration of the single currency policy, the experience of the EU still stands as the pioneer in any regional integration.  In terms of its integration theory, it bears the features of both functionalism and neofunctionalism, to be more precise; the founding concept was to achieve peace among European states via economic integration.  The process of European integration is not only in a de fond en comble direction, it also involves in a bottom-up influence; what’s more, rather than a systematic progress, the European integration is in an organic form which engages in the interaction from both directions.

[1] Hereinafter referred as the EU.

[2] Herman Lelieveldt and Sebastiaan Princen, The Politics of the European Union, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 32.

[3] Including the following works of David Mitrany: The Progress of International Government (1933). A Working Peace System (1966). And The Functional Theory of Politics (1975).

[4] Chris Brown and Kirsten Ainley, Understanding International Relations (4th ed.), New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2009, pp. 130.

[5] Robert Keohane, “Book Review: The Functional Theory of Politics.”in American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 2 (1987), pp. 805-806.

[6] David Mitrany, The Functional Theory of Politics, London: London School of

Economics & Political Science,1975, pp. 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Supra at 6, pp. 103-104.

[9] David Mitrany, A Working Peace System, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966, pp. 46-47.

[10] Ibid, pp. 48.

[11] ErnstHaas, Beyond the Nation-State: Functionalism and International

Organization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964, pp. 47-50.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Supra at 2, pp. 34.

[14] Supra at 9, pp. 135.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, pp. 136-137.

[17] P. A. Hammarlund, Liberal Internationalism and Decline of the State: The

Thought Of Richard Cobden, David Mitrany, And Kenichi Ohmae . New York:

Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 41.

[18] Supra at 6.

[19] Supra at 2, pp. 47.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, pp.48.

[22] Art. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 of the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon.

[23] Supra at 4, pp. 136.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Murray Forsyth, Federalism and Confederalism, in Chris Brown (ed.), Political Restructuring in Europe: Ethical Perspective, London: Routledge, 1994, pp.48-50.

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