Between Foucault and Gramsci: A Critical Analysis of European Integration

This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.


Why do we need Critical European Studies?

In front of the explosion of the financial crisis, between 2008 and 2011, European studies was completely unable to comprehend the unfolding socio-political and economic dynamics. The financial crisis triggered multiple related crises: firstly, an economic crisis, which has exacerbated differences between and inside member states; the refugee crisis, which has become a political and democratic crisis of the European and national institutions, where fundamental rights are under threat; and, finally, an integration crisis exploded with Brexit at the European level, and with the Catalan referendum at the national level. The more these crises erupted, the more it became the extent to which European Studies as a field was missing adequate categories to comprehend them became evident.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the debate in international relations (IR) between realism and liberalism was challenged. The discipline after this event, which did not foresee the ending of the Cold War, opened up to a different set of approaches and points of view, and somehow was forced to value theoretical diversity (Dunne et al. 2013). Similarly, in European studies, born as a subfield of IR, the debate between neo-functionalism and intergovernmentalism laid the foundations of the discipline. But, even when the European Community (EC) started to develop a relevant internal political arena and it became necessary to go beyond IR, encountering other disciplines, such as comparative politics, political science, and political sociology, the neo-functional and intergovernmental debate has never abandoned the discipline, creating new and harder disciplinary boundaries (Hix 1994).

In 2008, scholars in European studies did not understand the scale of the approaching crisis. Neo-functionalism and intergovernmentalism continued to be the alpha and the omega of the integration debate, marginalizing critical voices, where, on the contrary, a debate on the crisis was on-going. This debate has tended to divide categories in opposing dichotomy: member states against supranational institutions; national against European level; intergovernamental against communitarian level, and so on. This has led to a strict disciplinary division between the political sociology of integration and the economy of integration, where political and economic dimensions of integration have been studied separately, also during the economic-financial crisis (Cafruny and Ryner 2011).

Intergovernmentalism and neo-functionalism, but also governance studies, new institutionalism, and to a certain extent, liberal constructivism—what we define as the mainstream debate—take for granted their field of research understanding themselves as objective, apolitical, and rational approaches. They all—even if in different ways—share an ahistorical view on human nature, which is considered rational, individualistic, and utilitarian, driving towards analyses based on ceteris paribus assumptions defined by dependent and independent variables.

The limits of mainstream European studies can be expressed in the Coxian division between problem-solving theory and critical theory. The former tries to solve a specific problem: insulating a topic, limiting the number of variables taken into consideration, and defining ultra-specialized areas of interest. The latter calls into question institutions, power relations, and social forces that underpin them, and it is concerned with transformation processes in the social and political complex as a whole (Cox 1987). Indeed, in the last years, we have witnessed the rising of dissenting voices claiming a larger polyphony of the discipline, greater interdisciplinary analysis, and a deep reflection on the status of European Studies (Manners and Whitman 2016).


European Studies shape European integration 

European Studies do not merely describe the European system, but they actively contribute to the construction of this system. Many post-structuralist scholars have highlighted how theories are not objective, but they inform the field of analysis through their conceptualization of analytical categories, shaping the form of knowledge through which we understand the reality we live in. In this case, theories on European integration have contributed to the shaping of the European space itself. For example, quantitative and qualitative researches on European identity have made knowable a field of analysis that did not exist before, confronting national citizens with new questions about their European identity. Somehow, the form of these questions has shaped the emergence of a European identity.

Furthermore, the construction of comparable statistics, the regulation of national standards at European level, and the institutionalization of European databases have constructed a European space of research that did not exist before this comparison was made possible (Barry and Walters 2003). The European institutions have contributed to shape these fields of analysis through the establishment and institutionalization of regulations, programs, institutes, agencies, and funding systems, influencing the emerging research about the EU. Critical theories are able to excavate these social relations, because through their process of self-reflection they connect the construction of knowledge with the question of power, revealing the non-neutrality of knowledge. Therefore, critical theories do not take for granted their object of research whilst they are conducting research on it. Critical theories on the European Union do not consider integration as a given, and they challenge the teleological inspiration present in the mainstream debate. In this sense, critical theories are political theories because they acknowledge the political nature of their analysis (Manners 2006).

After ten years of crises, in front of a new health emergency that is triggering a new economic and political crisis, it is astonishing how European Studies are still lacking a space to nurture critical debates, how the major journals are still very skeptical of these contributions, and how funds are rarely allocated towards these researches. This restrains the possibility of encounter between different critical approaches, which have few conferences and networks to meet with limited funding, shrinking their interconnections, and limiting the emergence of new perspectives. This means that any student who wants to approach the study of the European Union from a critical perspective will be challenged by the lack of comprehensive studies, introduction manuals, bibliographies, and organized references. In turn, syllabi on European integration theories going beyond intergovernmentalism, neofunctionalism, governance studies, institutionalism, or constructivism are a rarity, though there are many other approaches and perspectives that have analyzed European integration. Two critical approaches, governmentality Studies and the neo-Gramscian, show how their combination could be useful for the analysis of the economic reforms of the European Union.


European governmentality

In the early 2000s, governmentality entered the sphere of international relations, whereas before it was more frequently applied to studies of national, political, and social life. International governmentality studies have examined the emerging global order privileging the analysis of rationality, techniques, and practices, focusing on the ways in which governments seek to transform individual and collective conducts (Walters 2012). Hence, governmentality is a method that analyses power connecting discourse analysis to the history of governmental practices. Studying European integration from this perspective means to situate it into a much broader history of rationalities, arts and techniques of governments (Walters and Haahr 2005).

Studies on governmentality applied to the European Union seek to answer questions such as: how is Europe imagined and governed? How is it made visible and understandable? Which kind of identity is being shaped for the governed through certain policies? What technologies of power are put in place to imagine and govern the European space, related to what kind of political rationality? These studies investigate how to govern, not why. They describe how certain truths are produced, how they make governing visible, practicable and calculable. In the case of the European Union it is the European space itself that has been made visible, calculable, comparable and analyzable (Shore 2011).

In my research on the New Economic Governance (NEG),[1] this has meant to show how an apparatus of knowledge and power naturalize certain economic and statistical truth, based on their supposed objectivity and neutrality. The aim was to deconstruct the functioning of certain governmental techniques, such as the required deficit to GDP ratio of 3 percent of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

Since the revised SGP, reinforced by the Six Pact and Two Pact, the deficit of member states is calculated in structural terms, not anymore in strict numerical terms. Therefore, it takes into consideration business cycle swings, filtering out temporary measures. This new calculation is presented by the European institutions as more flexible and objective than the previous numerical 3 percent threshold.

The structural deficit is the difference between present and potential output. The potential output is not observable but is estimated on the economic capacity of a country. In fact, there are different models to calculate the potential output, and the European Commission, the IMF, and the OECD do not utilize the same formula, producing different forecasts.[2]Hence, this calculation is highly contested in the economic discipline, and applied differently by international economic institutions. Deciding what is structural and what is temporal in an economic cycle is a political decision, which is determined on the basis of economic forecasts, evaluations, and benchmarks. This apparatus of knowledge is making member states’ economy visible, enabling an apparatus of power to steer their decision-making process (Radice 2014).

A governmentality approach, in this sense, is very useful to analyze the techniques applied by European and national institutions, exposing how mainstream categories are taken for granted. Furthermore, these are studies that do not consider the state as a unitary actor, but as an ensemble of practices and techniques institutionalized and made coherent under an art of government. In the European space, this is a neoliberal art of government continuously shaped and re-shaped by European and national institutions.


The neo-Gramscian approach to European integration

The neo-Gramscian approach, different from international governmentality studies, engages with the broader socio-economic context through an historical–materialist approach inspired by Antonio Gramsci. This approach, established by the pivotal work of Roberto Cox (1987), came to be the most important alternative to mainstream IR and international political economy (IPE), it is an approach much more coherent than international governmentality studies.

A neo-Gramscian analysis of European integration seeks to answer questions such as: what social forces have shaped the European project? Which accumulation strategy is fostered by the European project? What social forces are resisting the European project? How has the state been transformed by the integration process? Which ideas are driving the European project? How many European hegemonic projects exist? For neo-Gramscian scholars the European Union is the result of social struggles between different hegemonic projects, supported by different social forces. For the neo-Gramscian approach, social forces are collective actors engendered in the production process. They are neither historical formations nor economic or sociological categories, but real historical relationships based on the production process, as well as by shared common experiences and identities. Classes become aware of their common interests in the struggles with other classes, groups, or fractions, because they are not given unitary actors (Cox 1987).

The European project shifted towards a neoliberal project with the approval of the Single Market and the EMU, largely supported by a transnational capitalist class dominated by the most mobile fraction of capital. Van Apeldoorn emphasizes the importance of the transnational level, supporting the controversial thesis of an already formed transnational class (Van Apeldoorn 2002). On the contrary, the neo-Poulantzian critique defines the European Union as a multi-scalar ensemble of state apparatuses, giving an adequate weight also to national social forces (Buckel et al. 2017). Through these two concepts—competing hegemonic projects and multi-scalar ensemble of state apparatuses—we are able to analyze the institutional dynamics of the European Union, simultaneously taking into consideration both the national and European levels, while not considering any actor unitarily.

Furthermore, the neo-Gramscian approach has been the most able to connect European integration to the financialization process, showing how member states are insistently requested to finance themselves on the stock market and to keep their “own house in order,” in a moment when the entire economy is based on public and private debt. This reflection has been able to demonstrate how fiscal stability is a way of perpetuating an uneven and combined development, exacerbating the division between center and periphery, creditors and debtors, exporter and importer member states. There divisions are profitable for some social forces in some members states and not for other social forces and member states.


A difficult relation

The approaches inspired by Foucault and Gramsci have different views on the institutions, state, civil society, and the subjects of transformation. The neo-Gramscian approach focuses on why, on the causes and social purposes of integration; whereas governmentality studies focus on how, on rationalities, techniques and practices. Neo-Gramscians want to study the top-down dimension of power, its verticality and authoritative dimension; while governmentality studies want to analyze the bottom-up dimension of power, its horizontality, its constitutive dimension, and its capacity to form space and subjects over which power will be exercised.

Governmentality analyzes are incredible useful to study practices and techniques and to look inside the functioning of European institutions, but it is necessary to insert this radical institutional analysis, inspired by Foucault, into the broader context of capital accumulation, through an historical-materialist approach, not deterministic and economist, as the one inspired by Gramsci. This means to interrelate the governmental analysis of European institutions with the uneven construction of the European Monetary Union, the financialization process and rising private and public indebtedness. Member states are continuously controlled by an apparatus of knowledge and power constructed around fiscal stability, which has become even more pervasive after the approval of the NEG. In fact, many NEG measures have the aim to control and steer member states’ political economy, such as the Macro Economic Imbalance procedure (Erne 2015), or the European Semester cycle (Verdun and Zeitlin, 2018), pushing some authors to talk about an authoritarian turn of European governance (Obernorfer 2020).

Governmentality analyses are the best tool to comprehend this pervading mechanism of control. Despite this omnipresent control on national budget, for some member states, fiscal stability at these conditions is simply unreachable. However, governmentality analyses are unable to answer to this problematic, because they do not take into consideration the broader economic context. And here is where the neo-Gramscian analysis can help us to understand why so many exceptions to the rigid rules of the SGP have always been accepted by the European Commission during these years, and why fines on member states have never been applied. This is because the European request for fiscal stability does not want to eradicate public indebtedness, but, on the contrary, it wants to further promote a regime of accumulation based on financialization, constructing member states as performative debtors and creditors.

Hence, combining these two approaches can shed new light on the continuous neoliberal request for fiscal stability by European institutions. The analysis of rationality, techniques, and apparatus of knowledge and power needs to be inserted in the broader context of capital accumulation and its transformations. Actually, without this combination, both approaches are not able to grasp a part of the neoliberal fiscal stability regime. On one hand, Foucault’s work can help us to understand how power is normalized in everyday practices and discourses, which are the first site where subjects are produced as docile, responsible, and entrepreneurs of the self. But everyday practices are also the space where continuous counter-conducts, micro-resistances, contentions, and refusals, challenge the self-reproduction of power, opening different processes of subjectification against and opposed to those that are dominant. On the other hand, Gramsci’s reflection can guide our analysis on how hegemony is achieved and maintained. The founder of the Italian Communist Party in his Notebooks tries to acknowledge the contradictory relationship between micro and macro levels, bringing together the common sense with class strategy, folklore with party organization (Gramsci, 1996). This is because the struggle for hegemony—and hegemony is always about struggles—takes place at multiple sites and scales at the same time. For example, in Europe, hegemony is an economic, cultural, and institutional struggle happening at the local, national, and transnational levels simultaneously. And it needs to be challenged at all these level and scales. For the reproduction of a system, our daily reproduction of power is as important as the signing of an international treaty on fiscal stability.

Still today, the connection between the micro and macro levels is the most important challenge for any kind of critical analysis in European studies and for the construction of any political alternative. For this reason, the interrelation between Gramsci and Foucault produces a novel entry point to the study of the European Union and its crisis management and is even more interesting today when the COVID-19 health emergency is driving a new economic and social crisis.



Vanessa Bilancetti received her Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Rome La Sapienza, with a thesis on Critical Reading of the New Economic Governance: the case of the Fiscal Compact. She was Visiting Fellow at the University of Sheffield, and she is now a Lecturer in Political Sociology at the online University Uninettuno. Her research interests include the European Union, financialization, feminist political economy, and critical European studies. She is now developing a research on the commodification process of welfare regime in the European Union.



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[1] The NEG is the ensemble of economic and fiscal reforms that were introduced in the wake of the financial crisis.  The aim of these reforms was to mitigate the financial crisis restoring fiscal prudence, avoiding member states’ excessive deficit and debt, increasing control on their budget (Bilancetti, 2019).

[2] In 2016, for example, the output gap for the Euro area was estimated 1.0 by the European Commission autumn forecast, 1.2 by the IMF October outlook, and 1.9 by the OECD November economic outlook.



Published on June 3, 2020.


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