Neither fish nor fowl

by Henry Farrell on October 24, 2003

“Dan Drezner”: claims that France’s flouting of the rules governing the euro is proof that the European Union is just a standard international organization; I’m not any more convinced than “I was”: when he made the same argument a couple of months ago. I simply don’t see how this particular case provides a definitive test of whether or not the EU is a standard international organization (which is incapable of disciplining its more powerful members) or a truly supranational organization.

The key test-case isn’t the EMU, which is, more than most other elements of the European Union, a _political_ arrangement; it’s EU law, as interpreted by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ has asserted that European Law supersedes national law, and has direct effect in the member states, and it has gotten away with it. Member states don’t try to challenge it.

The ECJ’s role was the subject of a controversy in the pages of _International Organization_, the dominant international relations journal, back in the 1990’s. On the one side, Geoffrey Garrett argued that the EU was merely an international organization, and that the ECJ consistently reflected the preferences of the large member states, as Dan’s argument would predict. On the other, Walter Mattli and Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that the ECJ could – and did – consistently override the preferences of larger, more powerful member states, and that these member states acquiesced when it did so. Time – and empirical testing – have not been kind to Garrett’s arguments. Even under the most strained interpretation of “member state preferences” and legal outcomes, it’s hard to argue that the court consistently kowtows to large member states, or that large member states defy ECJ rulings when it doesn’t. This suggests that the EU is not simply an especially powerful international organization. There’s something else going there.

The EU is neither fish nor fowl, neither conventional multilateral organization nor conventional state. Nor is it likely to evolve into either the one or the other any time soon. Which means that it will continue to perplex international relations scholars like Dan and I, who like to categorize international actors, and assign them to neat, well organized boxes. The EU doesn’t fit well into any of them; it’s easy to say what it isn’t, but not so easy to say what it is.



John Theibault 10.24.03 at 2:28 pm

Sort of like the old Holy Roman Empire, right?

Have you political scientists/theorists moved beyond Pufendorf’s perplexity on how to categorize that?

The main difference seems to be that the HRE tried to exert authority in an environment of emergent state sovereignty and national consolidation while the EU tries to exert authority in an environment of (potentially) submergent state sovereignty and national consciousness.

In any case, I think the HRE can provide some lessons for the EU, both positive and negative.


Rodger 10.25.03 at 4:52 am

Re: Realist arguments about international organizations.

Q: What realist is perhaps best-known for his attacks on international organizations?

A: I nominate John Mearsheimer, Drezner’s colleague at Chicago.

Yet, Mearsheimer seems to be hedging his bets these days. Read the following quote. I realize it’s not precisely on point to the discussion, but it does seem broadly applicable.

After all, why bother with an agency like the UN if it’s merely going to reflect the interests of the powerful states? Or fail to do anything important?

This was in the NY Times, September 12, 2003:

”In the cold war you could argue that American unilateralism had no cost,” Professor Mearsheimer continued. ”But as we’re finding out with regard to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, we need the Europeans and we need institutions like the U.N. The fact is that the United States can’t run the world by itself, and the problem is, we’ve done a lot of damage in our relations with allies, and people are not terribly enthusiastic about helping us now.”

If you don’t want to pay the Times for the old article, you can still find it here:

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