Explaining the Treaty of Nice

Explaining the Treaty of Nice

Chapter 25

Explaining the Treaty of Nice: Beyond Liberal Intergovernmentalism?

Finn Laursen

[Chapter from Finn Laursen, ed. The Treaty of Nice, Nijhoff, 2006]


In this chapter we shall discuss how to explain the Treaty of Nice. In the introductory chapter we mentioned Andrew Moravcsik's approach, liberal intergovernmentalism (Moravcsik, 1993, 1998). This approach can structure an analysis of a treaty reform like the Treaty of Nice, but many authors, including contributors to this book, have also pointed to limitations in the approach (see also Christiansen, Falkner and Jørgensen 2002).

Some of the criticisms concern the first stage, the formation of national preferences. According to Moravcsik, the main explanation of national preferences is that economic actors make demands to the politicians. These in turn supply solutions mainly to get re-elected. Moravcsik's explanation therefore downgrades the role of geopolitics, including ideas. Further, domestic institutions such as parliaments, party systems and public opinion do not play important roles.

Criticisms concerning the second stage include assumptions about the negotiation process which is based on the so-called Nash bargaining solutions (Beach 2002). Such an approach downgrades the importance of specific institutional aspects of the negotiations, including the role of EU-level institutions, especially the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council Secretariat. Nor is there any particular role for Presidency entrepreneurship (see also Christiansen 2002, and Beach 2004).

Concerning the explanation of institutional choice in liberal intergovernmentalism, i.e. credible commitments, there have been fewer explicit criticisms. But scholars who question the rationality assumption of liberal intergovernmentalism will again ask about the role of norms and ideas at this stage, too (Wind, 1997; Risse, 2004; and Schimmelfennig 2003)

Some might argue that liberal intergovernmentalism fared well when it came to explaining European integration from the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) part of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993. This part was mostly about economic integration, where economic actors should be expected to play an important role. But Maastricht was more than EMU. It took a step towards political union, where the geopolitics of the end of the Cold War in 1989 was a very important event (Laursen, 1992). In general one can argue that it was the bipolar system of the Cold War that created a situation in Western Europe that allowed the founding Member States of the EC to start economic integration (see also Rynning's contribution to this volume)

The post-Maastricht reforms, Amsterdam and Nice – and now also the draft Constitutional Treaty – must partly be seen as a response to the new situation in Europe after 1989. First some members of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), then the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEECs), started demanding membership of the EU. Would a much enlarged Union be able to function effectively? Further, the difficulties of getting Maastricht ratified in 1992-93 led to a new debate about the legitimacy of the process. The opinions of the wider public started to play a more important role. The permissive consensus of the early years was gone (Laursen, 1994). Institutional choice was now not only a matter of 'credible commitments' but also a question of legitimacy.

As long as integration in Europe was economic in nature, including the internal market and monetary integration, so-called 'output legitimacy' was sufficient. If the Communities made good decisions economic and political actors would be supportive (Lindberg and Scheingold, 1970). As long as integration was 'negative' integration, i.e. the abolishing of barriers, output legitimacy was sufficient. But as the European Communities (EC) moved towards 'positive integration', i.e. the development of common policies, the process became more politicized, and questions of transparency and democracy were now on the agenda. A concern for 'input' legitimacy emerged (Scharpf, 1999). The issue of the 'democratic deficit' was on the agenda of successive treaty reforms. The main result was the introduction of the co-decision procedure in Maastricht for internal market related legislation. This procedure made the European Parliament a co-legislator together with the Council of Ministers. The use of co-decision was subsequently extended by the Amsterdam and Nice treaties. This made the European Parliament an institutional winner in the most recent institutional reforms. This concern for input legitimacy goes beyond 'credible commitments' and can thus not be fully explained by liberal intergovernmentalism. Indeed, institutions and ideas do matter.

Dr. Finn Laursen