European Integration Theory and Brexit – A Fairytale no Longer?


A significant number of EU scholars, myself included, have long been enamored with the success of the European project, and with the triumph of its aspirational idea of Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most seminal narratives of European integration reflect a romanticized novelization of the EU. Joseph H. H. Weiler once described this as “a compelling vision that has animated generations of European idealists, where the Ever Closer Union among the People of Europe, with peace and prosperity an icing on the cake, constitutes the beckoning Promised Land.” (J. H. Weiler 2011). It is hence a novelization complete with heroes, with unique normative designs and frameworks, and more importantly, one that was nested on an, again unique, kind of Nash equilibrium (an optimal game-theoretical outcome where no player can gain anything further by changing her strategy) committing the member states and the EU to “an ever-increasing embrace” of each other and of the European project (Weiler 1991, 2481). This embrace allowed for European supranationalism to achieve what intergovernmental political bargaining could not, the completion of the single market, and as long as all member states remained willing to hedge their own sovereignty, integration would follow its incremental course. Precisely because this unique understanding allowed for that desired outcome, there was no incentive for any one state to detract unilaterally from the EU. On the contrary, the highest payoff was said to be attained when all member states permitted the integration process to move forward. The equilibrium therefore resulted from supranational European integration depending on sovereignty concessions and political legitimation from the member states, which in turn depended on the EU to deliver the promised land.

The orthodoxy of European integration theory, the field of study devoted to understanding the integration process, provided several compelling and self-fulfilling narratives explaining how the member states became tethered to the integration project and to each other. These narratives seemed also to shed some light on the EU’s most enduring paradox. They provided a persuasive account about why the EU had chosen to move forward and become more integrated through  sovereignty redistributions in spite of the  fact that it had been on the brink of failure at every major European crossroad – most notable during the “empty chair” crisis (1965-6) and after the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty (2005).

In recent years however, and with all four areas of European integration—economic, social, legal and political—facing a series of unprecedented and interconnected crises, the normative foundations of the integration process have been shattered. This has not only cast serious doubts over the future of the EU but more importantly, it lays bare a new and troubling paradox. Arguably, never in any other time has the EU been so integrated and so successful as it is today, and never in any other time has there been a greater cognitive dissonance and distance between the peoples of Europe and the EU.

Our first instinct is to assume that there must be something fundamentally new about this period, something that both shifts and puts into question many of the essential paradigms of European integration theory, and that threatens the cohesion and the very future of the EU. This oversimplified and ultimately incorrect premise treats Brexit as a cause and as a new, beefed-up, life-threatening malaise afflicting European integration. A more careful and thoughtful analysis would suggest the opposite: that there is nothing fundamentally new per se about this period, at least not with regards to the design and nature of the EU—there is no unforeseeable or surreptitious event that should not have been long-ago contemplated. Brexit is not the cause of Europe’s crumbling house of cards; but a symptom of how we have failed to understand the adaptive complexity of European integration (see Magalhaes 2019).

The current European crisis therefore has a dual nature, both ontological and epistemological: we are facing a crisis over the future of the European Union, severely deepened by the realization of the crisis in our understanding of Europe’s integration process. The uniqueness of this moment in time lies rather with the latter than with the former. It is a result of our flawed understanding of European integration theory. which has too long been left anchored in classic typologies and doctrines of international law and politics, and has finally rendered the evolving integration process unintelligible through its lenses. So, how did we get here?


The novelization of Europe – an exercise in selective normativity and selective reductionism

In its simplest iteration, European integration theory has sought to answer Europe’s ontological question: what is the nature of the European Union? Our foundational knowledge of European integration theory stems mainly from the fields of law and political science, whose scholars have pursued this question concomitantly, and both with recourse to the same two epistemological approaches.

The first approach can be crudely characterized as being purely ontological and “normative-centric.” Early integration theorists were desperate to understand and explain “the nature of the beast” in normative and lexical terms that were both familiar to them and to others, with recourse to traditional theories and typologies within the canons of Law and Political Science such as constitutionalism, federalism, and intergovernmentalism. While these familiar frames-of-reference allowed for an “integration discourse” to initially take place, they also started the EU’s epistemological journey on very perilous footing. By using these traditional normative frameworks, early integration theorists seemed to not fully appreciate the implications of the uniqueness of the European project, a uniqueness that ironically, they themselves had both acknowledged and celebrated. A uniqueness that required then, as it requires now, a Cartesian type of skepticism, and an epistemological willingness (as stated is Descartes’ meditations) “to (doubt) everything completely and start again right from the foundations.

Instead, by attempting to fit the integration process within existing constructs, early integration theorists were conditioned unwittingly into making two mistakes. One, they engaged in what could be referred to as a top-down normative reconstruction of the European project. As Donald Puchala noted very early on, the integration project was being discussed “in terms of what it should be and what it should be leading toward rather than in terms of what it really (was) and (was) actually leading toward” (Punchala 1971, 268). And two, they were doing so using pre-existing normative templates that were not suitable for the unique, complex and adaptive integration process that was unfolding before them.

The second epistemological approach, which developed particularly within the field of political science, was mainly empirical and “system-centric.” It started by moving away from trying to espouse a grand theory of European integration. Understanding the nature of the beast, or even insisting on giving a normative label to this unique European experience was simply not a priority. Instead, these later integration theorists were more concerned with understanding the design and workings of the European Union. They aimed to empirically uncover the forces that were driving the integration process—i.e., what incentives, institutions, rationally based models, and which actors were enabling or curtailing European integration, moving Europe closer together or further apart.

It could be argued that, in contrast with the normative-centric approach, the system-centric was a bottom-up approach, focused on such integration metrics as rationalist actor preferences, realist institutional politics, and neoliberal market demands, among others. My understanding of this approach however is that it was an exercise in selective reductionism (a social science method of reducing complicated systems to their constituent parts and in order to fully understands the parts and thereby the whole, see Miller and page 2007, 27), where scholars would identify and give primacy to specific drivers and units of analysis, often just one, that they thought to be paramount in the integration process. In many ways the main criticism that befell the earlier normative-centric approach seems to be applicable to the second approach as well. In both cases we can speak of a certain selection bias, as both group of scholars favored certain normative or empirical features of the EU to provide compelling narratives on the nature of the EU, and on its most fundamental units of analysis, respectively(Puchala 1971).

So, how can we explain these two approaches that gave birth to the epistemological foundations of European integration theory? The answer lies somewhere between the uniqueness of the EU and the fact that the member states themselves never settled on its ontological question—on what they wanted it to be. Their commitment fears with this regard to normative labels could not be more evident than with the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, and the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. As many scholars have argued, the only significant difference between them was the abandonment of Europe’s constitutional ambition, while still retaining its constitutional dimension (see Weiler 2008).

The answer also lies with how the integration process was initially far removed from the peoples of Europe and was a project of the political and intellectual elites, who gave life to a certain “idea of Europe.” It is especially easy for us Europeans to forget that while the EU now permeates all areas of our lives,  is highly interconnected, institutionally vast and normatively intricate (albeit also  socially tethered, divided and politically complex… see Brexit), when the EU started it was hardly a polity at all. It wasn’t even that impressive of an international organization, but rather a shaky aspirational political startup, with highly uncertain prospects. Scholars writing about the integration process were inevitably caught up in early European statecraft.

So, considering the history and the nonlinear evolution of the integration process, is it fair to criticize early integration theorists for demonstrating normativity and reductionist biases? I would caution us in doing so, and I would remind us how hindsight bias can be particularly harsh when it comes to the EU’s history. The integration process presented more nuances and uncertain outcomes than Schrodinger’s cat. The nature and the state of the EU not only depended on when in time you were looking into the European box, but it also depended on who was opening the box. Was it the legal scholar or the political scientist? For integration-through-law and integration-through-politics, i.e., integration through supranational European institutions and integration through the member states, where all happening at different paces, and sometimes in opposite directions. Let’s cut early integration theory some slack.

These two approaches however ended up shaping the epistemological foundations of European integration theory in a curious way, heralding what I have referred to as the novelization of Europe. They explained the integration process through a series of compelling and competing narratives, where each narrative would give primacy to certain normative or systemic features of the EU, simultaneously constructing the European framework and deconstructing the European idea according to those features. The novelization was carried further by how these narratives celebrated their selected heroes of the integration process and by how a new normative language and meta-language started to emerge in the field of European integration. The novelization aspect of European integration theory is apparent when you consider how scholars have written about it in terms such as “the fairytale of Luxembourg” (see Phinnemore and Warleigh-Lack 2009), or “the heroic saga of juridical constitutionalization” (Tuori and Sankari 2010).


The leading narratives of European Integration.

I started this article by suggesting that the cold and complex reality of the integration process has finally caught up with the novelization of Europe and left many utopists baffled by Brexit and by Europe’s current challenges. Furthermore, and if like me you think Brexit to be symptomatic and not axiomatic of the misunderstood integration project, it is the very epistemological foundation of the integration theory that is in question. But what constitutes that foundation? What are the leading narratives of European integration theory?

While it would be practically impossible to summarize the awesome body of scholarship on European integration theory, it is worthwhile to try and capture the essential premises of the leading narratives that have for so long dominated our understanding of Europe. As a caveat, I would note that, regardless of what this article implies, I firmly believe the scholarship on European integration theory to be one of the most developed and thoughtful that I have ever come across, developed by some of the most respected, brilliant and inspiring scholars in both the fields of Law and Political Science.


Legal normativity and the EU’s constitutional order

The leading legal orthodoxy on the nature of the EU could be traced to one author’s school of thought, Joseph H. H. Weiler, and to arguably the most influential article ever written on European integration, “The Transformation of Europe” (Weiler 1991). Weiler’s constitutional construction of Europe rested on four premises. The first premise, known as the constitutional thesis, qualified the EU as a constitutional order instead of an international organization—this is essential paradigm shift number one. The argument goes as follows: unlike any other international organization, the EU did not evolve solely through intergovernmental cooperation. Instead, by embedding a preliminary reference mechanism into EU Treaties, the member states willy-nilly allowed for an adjudicative discourse to take place between national courts and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU, formerly ECJ) a discourse that would forever shape the EU. Believing that there was an organic inter-connectivity between the private economic, political and social interests of the peoples of Europe, the CJEU ushered forth several doctrines that gave birth to the celebrated “constitutionalization” of the EU (Magalhaes 2019).The second premise argues that this constitutionalization process enacted a Copernican revolution displacing the members states from the center of the integration process—this is essential paradigm shift number two. Intergovernmental political negotiation gives way to integration through supranational European law, and integration through law, not politics, becomes the EU’s modus operandi—what is known as the legal dimension thesis. This was achieved in great part by elevating the role of the CJEU in the integration process―the judicial empowerment thesis.

How did all these pieces fit together, and why did the member states not curtail the ECJ’s activism and expansive constitutionalization of Europe? The answer lies with the fourth and perhaps most fundamental premise of the constitutional construct of Europe, known as the equilibrium thesis. Europe’s normative construct was nested on a static equilibrium between the supranational constitutional order and the intergovernmental legislative system. This equilibrium, which rested on binary notions of exit and voice, transcribed a unique and reciprocal relationship between law and politics. The member states awarded political legitimacy to the constitutionalization process in exchange for how it allowed for the continued completion of the internal market. In that regards, Weiler’s constitutional construct is perhaps one of the most compelling narratives both addressing and mitigating the EU’s infamous legitimacy deficit.


Political Science’s reductionism and the empirical study of Europe

It is from the political science camp that an empirical study of the integration process first took place. While these scholars also produced seminal grand normative theories of European integration, I am focusing solely on their contribution to our empirical understanding of the European construct. The foundational premise of almost all political science empirical narratives rests on the assumption that integration is predominantly a process of actor-driven institutional politics and preferences. Andreas Grimmel appropriately coined this premise as the interest paradigm (Grimmer 2017), noting how the pursuit of interests is the true motor of European integration (Gower 2013, 37; Moravcsik 1997, 516). One cannot overstate the importance of the interest paradigm in the political science construct of Europe, and how it ended up conditioning most of their normative premises and their empirical research. This is particularly true when we consider how the interest paradigm was often articulated within an assumed rationalist framework or by use of rational choise theory. We could go as far as to say that the corollary to the interest paradigm was the belief that integration was driven by rational and self-interested actors, who acted upon certain incentives and preferences. This is acutely apparent by the neofunctionalist concept and expectation of integrational spillover effects. Neofunctionalism asserts that cooperation in core areas would create certain economic benefits, which in turn created political incentives and popular support for further integration in other areas.[1] This rationalist-interest perspective suggested that politics would necessarily follow economics as a result of the positive externalities created by functional spillovers (which occur when “actors realize that the objectives of initial supranational policies cannot be achieved without extending supranational policy-making to additional, functionally related domains” (see Stone and Sweet 2012, 8). Intergovernmentalists, as Andrew Moravcsik argues, adopted a more neorealist view that “the primary source of integration lies in the interests of the states themselves and the relative power each brings to Brussels” (Moravcsik, in Keohane and Hoffmann 1991, 75). Regardless, however, of which institutional incentives (political capital, bargaining power, or economic benefits) or structural incentives (economic, social or cultivated spillovers) were driving the integration process, this more systemic understanding of the integration process developed another foundational, pure epistemological premise. In what became known as the transaction-driven thesis, political scientists discovered that European integration was measurable through a series of empirically testable propositions. Perhaps the more insightful premise however from the political science narratives was the understanding that integration was concerned with processes not outcomes—the celebrated form-follows-function thesis. Classic narratives of political science shy away from conceptualizing what polity should emerge from the process of integration (see Wiener and Diez 2009, 3: “Both neofunctionalists and intergovernmentalists are more concerned with the process of integration than with the political system to which that integration leads”).  Unlike legal scholarship, which attempted to provide a framework for integration to occur based on a certain notion of the European polity (whether as constitutional, federalist, or multilevel), political science focused on the dynamics that “would drive integration forward as a process” (Stone and Sweet 2012, 7).


The reckoning of the novelization of Europe

While the above summary is perhaps a crude and incomplete account of the premises of European integration theory, it reflects the main epistemological foundations of how lawyers and political scientists have studied and understood the European construct. Hopefully, as you were reading them, you might already imagine how Europe’s current moment shatters many of those paradigms and premises, and how integration theory is at an epistemological loss to adequately explain the integration process. Remember, for all intents and purposes, never in any other time has the EU been as integrated and as successful as it is today, yet never in any other time in its history has there been a greater cognitive dissonance and distance between the peoples of Europe and the E.U.

A vast “crisis literature” has emerged to provide answers to this paradox, and along with them the usual suspects have resurfaced with amped-up vengeance. Perhaps no greater is the belief that Europe’s legitimacy deficit has finally caught up with it. Ever since Fritz Scharpf (2003) crystalized the concepts of input and output legitimacy, scholars from all fields have been wondering if and how the EU’s effectiveness can attenuate or even replace its democracy deficit. The legitimacy paradigm of the EU has rested on the belief that output legitimacy could somehow replace input legitimacy, particularly through the EU’s constitutional order, and its economic success. In a way, that was the hope of the normative equilibrium thesis, and the expected outcome of political sciences’ self-interested rational choice theories, respectively.Most of the crisis literature therefore focuses on key EU financial and monetary econometrics to explain the failings of the integration project and the current crisis moment. These scholars claim that, epistemologically, we failed to pay enough attention to the right empirical metrics—hence another (misguided) iteration of it’s the economy, stupid…

The counter argument to that claim is that this crisis is unique precisely because it affected all four areas of European integration, and if that is true then Grimmel is right and “there is no longer a superior form of rationalization in society but a multitude of perspectives of which one cannot say that one is superior to another[2]” (Grimmel 2017, 161; who borrows from Luhmann 2013, 4: “every change to a subsystem is also a change to the environment of other subsystems—whatever happens, happens in multiplicity”). This leads us to a somewhat rude awakening from the novelization of Europe and the fairytales of European integration narratives, one that realizes that the European construct requires a serious systematic understanding. The problem is that we have failed, for too long, to realize that Europe exists as a composite of four distinct orders that deeply permeate each other. Europe’s social order, originally merely an amalgamated mosaic of the social orders of its members states, soon developed by its own right. It resulted from free movement spillovers and from the birth of European citizenship, which combined have paved the way to an emerging European identity (Checkel and Katzenstein 2009). But this emerging social order and tenuous identity co-exist with the constant strains of Europe’s democratic deficit, and the harsh demands of the EU’s economic imperative. As the financial crisis revealed, Europe’s economic order still lies at the centerstage of the EU as one of its main raison d’être. It remains the leading metric for the EU’s success and appeal, regardless of the trends and evolutions in the other orders. Finally, the struggle between Europe’s identity and Europe’s economic purpose, evident in the varying and changing degrees of European solidarity, are also caught up in the struggle between Europe’s political and legal orders, who remain engaged in a primacy dispute over the governing framework of Europe.

Many scholars and politicians have suggested that loyalty is the only way out of this crisis, the only way forward for Europe*, and that the EU requires a new act of volition and further curtailing of our national identity and sovereignty. That is certainly a possible path for Europe, and in my view the right path, however, the greatest threat to European cohesion is not lack of loyalty, but lack of informed decision-making. I therefore argue that in order to solve this paradox, in order to determine the future of the EU and overcome Europe’s epistemological crisis, we must adopt a broader, more systemic, approach in order to understand the complex adaptive nature of the integration process. Brexit has shown that the greatest crisis afflicting the European project is an epistemological crisis, resulting from our continued failure to understand the processes and forces that drive European integration. Attempts to address questions regarding the future of Europe are failing precisely because we are attempting to answer Europe’s ontological question without first answering Europe’s epistemological question. In other words, we are attempting to agree on a future for Europe without first understanding the very nature of the integration process, and if we persist on this fallacy we are doomed to fail in both pursuits, as we have been failing for the last seventy years.


*I recall Gonzalez Pons’s speech: “Yo espero que la próxima cumbre de Roma hable menos de lo que Europa nos debe y hable más de lo que nosotros le debemos después de todo lo que nos ha dado.”


Diogo Magalhaes earned his Doctor of the Science of Law degree from Cornell Law School, and his LL.M. in Law in a European and Global Context from Catolica Global School of Law. He remains hopeful regarding the European project.



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Published on January 16, 2020.
Photo: Great Britain withdrawal from European union brexit concept | Shutterstock


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