Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


1. European Federation: Vision or Utopia?

Ordinary language makes a distinction between the utopian dreamer and the visionary political leader. The utopian offers an ideal system of governance and community. Yet, he presents no clear ideas about how and under what conditions the polity can be moved towards the ideal. Or, if he does, the ideas, together with the prescribed institutional arrangement, are generally viewed as impractical or impossible fantasies. The visionary leader has a better understanding of the relationship between human action, institutions and the flow of history. The prescribed political order can be imagined to work in practice, and there is enough understanding and control of institutional dynamics to move the polity in a consistent and desired direction.

The scholarly literature, however, suggests that the distinction is less clear than is assumed in everyday language. There is no general theory of institutional dynamics that explains how and when institutions of governance change, and what implications follow from institutional change. Nor is there agreement on the role of deliberate intervention and governance in processes of comprehensive institutional change. Scholarly assessments of the possibility of transformative leadership through institutional change seem to depend on both the time frame and the theoretical perspective employed.

In the following, these ideas are developed in the context of Joschka Fischer's scheme for a new European political order, as expressed in his speech at the Humboldt University.1 Here, the existing order based on intergovernmental co-operation and a union of states (Confederacy, Staatenverbund) is to be replaced by a European Federation. The key characteristics of the Federation will be a constitutional treaty centred around basic human and civil rights; shared sovereignty and a clear definition of competences between European and nation-state levels of governance; a division of powers among the European institutions, including full parliamentarisation and a European parliament with two chambers, a European government and, possibly, a directly elected president `with far-reaching executive powers.'

The scheme was presenting an end-state, the finalité, and `the last brick in the building of European integration.' Comprehensive institutional reform was seen as necessary in order to maintain the Union's capacity to act effectively in the face of the coming enlargement and increasing heterogeneity. The reform was also supposed to improve transparency and democratic control, and to achieve a better balance between economic and political integration and power. The perceived alternatives were further integration, or stagnation and even erosion of the EU.

The aim of this paper is not to discuss the suggested scheme in great detail, or to make a normative assessment of the desirability of a European federation. Instead, the focus is on understanding what kind of processes might produce radical institutional transformation of the kind suggested by Fischer. The basic questions are well known: what are the processes through which political orders are established, maintained, changed and abandoned? In what ways, and under what conditions, is it possible to initiate and carry out deliberate comprehensive changes in the political order? In particular, when is it possible to create a discontinuity in the political organisation of societies characterised by considerable political, socio-economic and cultural diversity, or in international political orders?

The paper contrasts three theoretical perspectives on institutional dynamics, giving political leadership quite different roles. The first portrays leaders as impotent pawns-the victims of the functional imperatives of environmental change or internal processes beyond their control. The second portrays leaders as omnipotent political engineers, solving problems and resolving conflicts on the basis of stable preferences and powers. The third, an institutional perspective, portrays leaders as institutional gardeners. They are neither impotent nor omnipotent and, if patient, they may give some direction to institutional developments.

An institutional perspective emphasises the role of institutions, their origins, history, internal structures and dynamics, in the understanding of human action. Institutions are rules and practices embedded in structures of meaning and resources. Changes in a political order involve not only the reorganisation and reallocation of resources, but also the reconceptualisation and change in expectations, preferences, aspirations, mentalities and identities.2 Yet, institutions are seen as being relatively robust against environmental changes and deliberate reforms.3

The rest of the paper is divided into five parts. First, Fischer's view of the change process is briefly presented. Second, the three theoretical perspectives, describing political reformers as pawns, engineers and gardeners, are developed in more detail. Third, these perspectives are then used to discuss Fischer's plan as utopian or visionary. Fourth, some non-heroic options for transformative political leadership are suggested, and fifth, the uncertain borders between utopian dreams and visionary leadership are revisited.

1 Speech by Joschka Fischer at the Humboldt University in Berlin, 12 May 2000 (reproduced in this Volume) The German title was: `Vom Staatenverbund zur Föderation: Gedanken über die Finalität der europäischen Integration'. When quotation marks or quotation font are used without any other references, the text refers to the speech. Thanks to Jeff Checkel and Martha Snodgrass for help and advice.

2 Fischer does not present his ideas on the desired changes in financial arrangements, and this aspect is, therefore, left out in my response, too. Naturally, this does not imply that the financial and reallocation aspects are not highly significant for the institutional future of Europe.

3 March & Olsen (1983,1989,1995,1998); Olsen (1992,1996,1997,1998); Brunsson & Olsen (1993); March (1999).



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