European Governmentality: The Liberal Drift of Multilevel Governance

October 28, 2010

From the very beginning of European integration in the 1950s onwards, observers have disagreed about whether the process is driven by European states and adds to their power or, on the contrary, sets up and enables new institutions above and beyond the nation state to undermine state-based political authority.

Richard Münch's study comes down firmly on the side of those arguing that the integration process amounts to a significant weakening of the regulatory power of European Union member states. His account is based on a much longer, German-language monograph published in 2008. The English version has not been updated and the global economic crisis and enforced "Europeanisation", as exercised during the Greek bail-out, do not feature in the argument.

However, Münch does not aim for an up-to-date account. He offers a sociological inquiry into long-term social change in the EU. His thesis is that the emerging European system of multi-level governance pushes towards a liberal and pluralistic order, while at the same time republican and majoritarian features of democracy at the national level decline. Thus the author does not believe that different national styles of governance can forever coexist in the integration process.

From his point of view, the European Court of Justice acts as the most significant agent of liberalisation. Indeed, the analysis focuses almost exclusively on the court and ignores all other EU institutions. Drawing on quantitative data, the author states that "law follows trade" and that "trade and legal regulation push each other towards steady growth".

In the book's particularly important second chapter, Münch refers to Émile Durkheim's classical analysis of cross-border labour division in order to explain the court's adjudication on mutual market access, free movement and anti-discrimination, which acted as decisive factors to allow for the creation of the European single market. This process, it is argued here, has created a new field of European legal power with its own language and rationale based on "legitimate definitional power". It can thus no longer be understood in terms of delegation of authority from national governments or the member states' legal systems.

What follows from the European Court of Justice's agency is the EU's shift towards a more US-like pluralistic setting. This means intensified competition between nations and intensified competition between citizens who use the educational system to engage in "human capital individualism" (the latter is one of the author's less-fortunate terms). Some arguments are spot on, and the discussion of US-style "constitutional liberalism" as represented by the Supreme Court is very convincing.

However, it is left to the reader to compare the European Court of Justice with the Supreme Court, as a direct comparative discussion from the author is missing. Indeed, nearly all sections would have benefited from a more direct comparative focus.

This is a book about the larger picture. At times, one feels that less could have been more. One encounters Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu, US federalism, German constitutional patriotism, French republicanism, a bit of political economy and comparative welfare-state scholarship thrown in for good measure. Not all of it is fully convincing and the author sometimes overshoots by drawing conclusions that have not been established beyond doubt in the previous discussion.

Yet this does not negate the analytical value of focusing on the European Court of Justice's liberal bias and powerful position. Munch claims that the entrenchment of a neoliberal order is based on equal opportunity and minority protection. Yet this new order turns away from a stronger republican mutual commitment to social citizenship.

The author's challenging ideas are being put to the test during the global economic crisis. In the months to come, we will be able to judge whether or not the EU's constitutional liberalism is as entrenched as he suggests.

European Governmentality: The Liberal Drift of Multilevel Governance

By Richard Münch. Routledge, 184pp, £75.00. ISBN 9780415485814. Published 3 June 2010

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