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The indexes of most textbooks on European integration theory do not contain the term ‘disintegration’. This is not to suggest that theories about European integration only know one direction – forward – but the value of integration theory has never been on trial as seriously as it is today. The future of an ‘ever closer’ Europe is increasingly uncertain. While hardships related to the Euro continue, the sequence of semi-successful Brussels summits seems endless. Meanwhile, national governments still dominate at the expense of supranational institutions. Old animosities between Europeans are reappearing with alarming seriousness, as news reporting about Greeks in Germany and vice versa show.

All this makes questions about a possible European disintegration plausible ones to ask. But integration theory provides few answers. Indeed, many theories have sought to explain why and how supranational governance develops, but, as I argue in a recent essay, many of them give us only a little hint as to why, when and how supranational competences can be repatriated.

Looking at the vast range of theories, in the essay I examine two of the most influential ones: ‘neofunctionalism’ and ‘intergovernmentalism’.

The former claims that European nations integrated because supranational governance turns out to be more efficient. This begins by looking at a few economic sectors and then witnessing a ‘spilling over’ into a wide range of policy areas. Over time, according to neofunctionalists, the process of integration steadily reduces the power of national governments in favour of supranational institutions.

But in light of the recent political turmoil, the challenges with this approach seem insurmountable. First, it assumes that integration largely bypasses national states; but this tells us little about what happens when integration is reversed. I suggest the actors will be exactly those whom integration theory marginalised – national governments. Second, the functionalist logic plausibly explains transnational cooperation in many economic sectors, like the steel and coal industries, but this may not apply to other cases. Is a common currency among diverse economies demanded by functionalist standards?

In contrast, intergovernmentalism assumes that nation states are at the centre of international cooperation, including regional integration schemes. Supranational European institutions, proponents of this theory suggest, are the outcome of self-interest bargaining among nations.

In terms of disintegration, intergovernmentalism provides a better perspective on recent developments. It suggests that states who question further European integration or threatening to repatriate competences, like the UK, do so by appealing to their ‘national interest’. If Europe should disintegrate, it will certainly be left to the nation states to pick up the pieces.

Yet, the theory insufficiently explains why integration occurs. Intergovernmentalism, meanwhile, defines national interest mostly in economic terms. But this ignores that European disintegration heavily hinges on social factors that economics can’t explain. If the UK government wants to repatriate matters of national security to Britain, is it really following its economic interest? Or does it just cater for the EU-skepticism of the British electorate? And if the Greek people had voted an anti-austerity coalition into government in June 2012 (to which they were close to doing), would such an administration have acted in the ‘economic interest’ of Greece?

Populations (and hence electorates) may have EU-skeptic or EU-friendly (or EU-ignorant) preferences that are perhaps economically irrational but nonetheless relevant for explaining integration or predicting disintegration. Few theories of European integration have accounted for ‘softer’, i.e. sociological factors.

In my essay, I assess one of these approaches, transactionalism, which looks at the extent to which any process of regional integration necessitates the attainment of a sense of community. Neofunctionalism and intergovernmentalism tend to neglect such aspects. In times when the European project is suffering from declining popularity, Europe will disintegrate when people are fed up with the EU – no matter if supranational governance is actually functional or if sticking to the EU is of national interest.

Bernhard Clemm is a masters student in the European Politics and Society programme at Oxford. 

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