Theorizing the European Union: Realist, Intergovernmentalist and Institutionalist Approaches
31 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2010
Date Written: June 9, 2010
For many years, theoretical approaches to the study of the European Union were dominated by theories of international relations. This chapter examines a body of theories – realism, intergovernmentalism, liberal intergovernmentalism, and rational-choice institutionalism – that together represent a distinctive family of approaches to the study of the EU. While these various theories are often depicted, correctly, as rivals, they share an intellectual starting point in international relations, as well as two common core assumptions, namely (1) the initial primacy and ongoing centrality of states in EU politics, and (2) the assumption that those states (and other actors) behave as utility-maximizing rational actors.
Despite these common assumptions, the various theories reviewed in this chapter also differ on three other assumptions, namely (1) the nature and derivation of state preferences, (2) the severity of the international security environment, and (3) the significance of international institutions in shaping the interactions of states and creating potentially powerful supranational agents. These different assumptions, in turn, explain the primary differences in the predictions of each theory about the workings of EU politics and the process of European integration.
Finally, this chapter can also be read, not only as a typological argument, but also an intellectual history argument, tracing an intellectual progression in the literature from realism to intergovernmentalism to liberal intergovernmentalism to rational-choice institutionalism. While useful as a heuristic device, however, this intellectual history argument should not be confused with an evolutionary argument: the “later” theories have not replaced or subsumed “earlier” theories like realism, which have continued to develop in recent years and remain more or less viable as theories of European integration and EU politics.
Keywords: European Union, European integration, realism, liberal intergovernmentalism, institutionalism
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