The European Union and its people are being pushed towards yet another ‘constitutional moment’. Rather than letting it pass by, or worse, allowing it to be hijacked by Member State or EU institutional politics, European citizens could use this moment to change their conception of the EU to a polycentric one, allowing more autonomy for the many different intra-European groups for the common good of the EU.

By Josephine van Zeben

The financial woes of the European Union, and especially the Eurozone, have caused an undercurrent of frustration regarding the (constitutional) future of the EU to come to the fore once again. When the ‘Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe’ (also know as the Constitutional Treaty) died a premature death in 2005, many Europeans – be they citizens, politicians, or academics – believed that the EU’s ‘transformative constitutional moment’ had passed. The Treaty of Lisbon still succeeded in enacting most of the changes proposed in the Constitutional Treaty but the public’s engagement with the European Union appears to be more difficult to reinstate. Colleagues Nik de Boer and Maarten Hillebrandt recently submitted that the European Union has become something to be ‘for or against’ and that their hope for the EU’s future would be one of real democracy.

An ever-closer Union?

The question about the (non-)democratic nature of the EU is long standing and thus far unresolved. A closely related issue is the division of powers, or competences, between the different levels of government within the EU. Part of the constitutional reform process was a move towards a more ‘federal’ European Union. The idea of a United States of Europe has had very few supporters, regardless of the fact that many features of the EU may already be considered characteristic of a federal system. Increasingly, Eurosceptisms and Eurocrises feed into ideas of a looser Union, and for some Member States, this may include ’disunion’.

The December 2012 issue of the Economist shows how much of the blueprint of the EU can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire and how its future, or lack thereof, may follow a similar path. Attributing the demise of the Empire to the eventual power imbalance between Brandenburg-Prussia and Austria, on the one hand, and the other parts of the Empire on the other, the article suggests that regardless of a looser or tighter union, the position of Germany (and to some extent France) is untenable for the European Union and will lead to its eventual demise.

Seemingly the only antidote would be the successful control of all Member States by the European institutions. However, this kind of control would necessitate several changes, if not legal then at least in practice, which in turn would ask for another elusive constitutional moment. Moreover, it is questionable whether such reform would be able to meet the calls for a more democratic EU; rightly or wrongly, the EU is not perceived to be a democratic place by its citizens.

Embracing Complexity and Diversity: The Polycentric Option

In academic circles, we appear to have moved beyond ‘government’ on to ‘governance’ and beyond the ‘nation state’ to ‘post-national rulemaking’. In real life politics, these terms appear to carry less weight: most ‘European’ issues continue to be decided in the national arena. This importantly includes our view, and experience, of the EU as European citizens. Principles such as subsidiarity and proportionality have done little to change this. The (discussion on the) European Union moves along a continuum between dissolution and federalism. There is no reason why we should continue to move between these two extremes.

In the 1950s and 60s, Michael Polayni, Vincent Ostrom, Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren developed the concept of polycentricity. Polycentric orders can occur in many different areas: economics, science, law, and also governance. With respect to the latter, a polycentric political system can be defined as a system of governance that has many centers of autonomous decision-making that are formally independent of each other but bound together by an institutional or cultural framework of overarching rules.

The European Union already encompasses many of the characteristic features of a polycentric system – for instance, subsidiarity is a founding principle of polycentric governance. In many ways, one could argue that certain policy areas of the EU are in fact polycentric, rather than federal or multi-level governance structures. There are, however, some features of polycentricity that could help move forward the development of the EU. Most importantly, polycentricity foresees the inclusion not only of the many formal institutions and networks in the EU framework, but also the numerous informal collaborations that shape life in the EU. Within a polycentric order, the concept of subsidiarity would lead to tangible self-governance by civil society and address the democratic deficit of the EU, especially in areas such as environmental policy, where there is always a tradition of grass roots movement. Polycentricity moreover allows us to incorporate calls for independence by the Scottish, the Catalans or the Flemish as a development of, rather than threat to, the polycentric system. Although federalism and polycentricity are not mutually exclusive, polycentricity allows for a more fluid system of governance over different levels: reallocations of power would not be have to be a top-down choice but could be initiated bottom-up.

Polycentricity is not an easy answer to the future of the EU. Then again, it is not an easy question. For my part, I am not yet sure whether we can speak of post-national rulemaking or governance in the context of the EU. What is clear is that we are talking about unprecedented levels of complexity and fragmentation in governance. Embracing this complexity through a system of governance that embraces all centers of decision-making is a good first step towards a more democratic Union.

Dr. Josephine van Zeben is a postdoctoral researcher at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Science and Policy Analysis, Indiana University. Her past and present research on division of powers within the European Union can be accessed here.

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