Under the skin of a bureaucratic giant

The Institutions of the European Union. First edition - Flexible Integration - The European Union and the Asian Countries. First edition - The European Social Fund and the EU - The European Union and the Third World. First edition - The European Union and the Middle East. First edition

November 29, 2002

The days when an intermediate course on European integration could be taught out of a single textbook are past, if, indeed they ever existed. The European Union simply has too many functions, institutions and important relationships to fit in a single volume.

In publishing, the move is towards book series that promise to offer both comprehensiveness and portability, with individual volumes that are both readable and affordable. This review draws on three such series: Contemporary European Studies, published by Sheffield Academic Press (now part of Continuum) for the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES); the European Union series, published by Palgrave; and the New European Union series, published by Oxford University Press.

The selection of books is indicative of the range of issues to be addressed. Three of the volumes - those by Søren Dosenrode and Anders Stubkæjr, Georg Wiessala and Martin Holland - focus on the external relations of the EU with the Middle East, Asia, and the third world (read development policy). The book by Jacqueline Brine analyses the European Social Fund. Alex Warleigh's book provides a flexible, functional lens for interpreting the development of the EU. Finally, the edited work by John Peterson and Michael Shackleton analyses the EU's most important institutions and institutional dynamics.

The three external relations books are intended to be comprehensive in scope, if not in detail. Dosenrode and Stubkæjr's book on relations with the Middle East takes a chronological view. They argue that although the Middle East has been an important stimulus for the development of a common European foreign policy, the member states have actually little in common in their objectives toward the region. As a result, Europe has been involved in the Middle East and yet European involvement has never been decisive.

The argument is provocative, yet the delivery is only suggestive. The authors posit more about actions at the European level than about the differences between the member states. As a result, the book is more of a survey than an argument and is likely to be useful for background reading rather than as a central text.

Wiessala's book on relations between Europe and Asia is organised across countries rather than over time. The unifying theme is that EU-Asia relations are diverse and changing. This is not a provocative argument, but Wiessala compensates with clear writing and detailed lists of information sources and issue areas.

Where the book runs into difficulty is in the balance of coverage. Human rights take precedence over trade or development. Bhutan gets almost as much coverage as Taiwan (about two paragraphs) and Nepal gets even more. The chapter on southeast Asia is 31 pages long and the chapter on China only 17 pages. This may be an accurate reflection of the balance of interests in the EU. However, it remains unclear why the EU has this particular set of priorities. As with the previous volume, Wiessala's book is best used in a supporting role.

Holland's book on relations with the third world is much more of a core text. It is clearly focused on the problems related to EU development policy in different regions of the world. It asks the obvious question - does the EU have a distinct role to play in development? - and uses it to frame a challenging and detailed analysis. Moreover, this analysis is not made in isolation. Holland concludes by establishing the link between the specific area of development policy and our more general understanding of European integration as a process. In this way, it is easy to imagine how Holland's book could be used to structure course teaching, particularly in a modular environment.

The volumes by Brine and Warleigh are different. Although they might be used for teaching, they are not textbooks. They are arguments. Brine's analysis focuses on the language used by EU legislators in the realm of social policy. She traces the development of the European Social Fund over time and through competing discourses - economic and social, market and redistributive, competitive and inclusive.

A weakness of the volume is that the motivations of the actors behind the language are not analysed directly. As a result, the discourses tend to assume a quasi-autonomous character. The volume's strength is that it provides a unique historical perspective on the emergence of EU employment policy.

Warleigh's book makes the case for "flexible integration" as a way of understanding what the EU is and what it should be. This argument is idiosyncratic rather than mainstream and the literature deployed would seem exotic next to any stand-alone volume on theories of integration. That said, Warleigh makes an interesting case for reforming both the institutions of the EU and how we perceive them. His volume, like Brine's, could be used to frame a single seminar or discussion, but not a whole course module. In fairness, that is probably how both were conceived in the first place.

The Peterson and Shackleton book is in another category altogether. It is a textbook that reads like an argument. Given that it is the only edited volume of the six under review, it is worth emphasising that this collection as a whole is, on balance, more coherent and convincing than any of the monographs (although Holland comes close). Part of this coherence is structural. Peterson and Shackleton develop a number of key themes at the beginning of the volume about the role of institutions and the importance of the institutionalist approach; their contributors keep these themes close to the surface of the analysis; and the editors return to the same set of themes in the conclusion.

Institutions matter because they shape the preferences of actors (and member states) in the EU, because they have some autonomy in pursuing their own objectives, and because they play a crucial role in connecting the EU to the Europeans it purports to serve. By implication, an institutional analysis helps to highlight the limitations (or aberrations) in member-state behaviour; to underscore the interaction between competing institutional agendas; and to explain why the people of Europe appear increasingly disaffected from the process of European integration.

The fact that these themes are so deeply embedded in the structure of the volume makes it easy to see how the Peterson and Shackleton textbook could be used to underpin an entire course module.

A large part of the coherence in their volume is also due to canny timing. Institutionalism is gaining ground in the literature on European integration as a mainstream approach. More importantly, the institutions of the EU have become a subject of policy concern. Most important of all, the focus for concern is how well the institutions link Europe to the people and so provide a basis for future integration.

These are precisely the issues that Peterson and Shackleton's volume address. As a result, their collection operates as a paradigmatic text, as well as being a "textbook" in the more conventional sense. It is not simply the best book available on European institutions, it is also among the first sustained attempts to apply and consolidate institutionalist insights.

My high praise for Peterson and Shackleton's work is not without qualification. However, the weakness of the book lies in its now-standard textbook features and not in the contributions or the editorial matter. The suggestions for further reading appear eclectic in comparison with the coherence of the volume itself. The web links appended to each chapter almost always include a reference to the EU's own website and often little else. Such features are more likely to confuse scholars into believing that the volume is somehow "just" a textbook than they are to encourage students to deepen their understanding of the EU.

The whistles and bells are also unnecessary. Established generic online resources (such as Mimas or Google) not only provide the most up-to-date information about supplementary readings, but also offer citation indexes and other mechanisms for helping students and scholars to tell the good from the bad.

As the EU becomes increasingly complex, perhaps the time has come to look away from textbooks as the basis for intermediate teaching. The most attractive volumes in this collection are also the most analytically ambitious. Moreover, the weaknesses in all cases can be found where the goals of analysis come into the conflict with the goals of creating a textbook for teaching. The development of thematic series is an important step in the right direction because it abandons any pretence to comprehensive description.

What remains to be seen is whether publishers will continue to gamble on the production of coherent and yet challenging volumes within these series. In their own ways, each of these books suggests the advantages of moving away from "textbooks" and the disadvantages of trying to be all things for all students.

Erik Jones is resident associate professor of European studies, Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University, Italy.

The Institutions of the European Union. First edition

Editor - John Peterson and Michael Shackleton
ISBN - 0 19 870052 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 402

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