Politicising Europe – why bother?
Politicisation has become a key concept in European integration studies. Since the mid 2000s, it has been the object of an intense and controversial scholarly debate. The rise of politicisation as a topic in research on Europe certainly reflects current problems and challenges of the European integration process. The failure of the Constitutional Treaty, increasing Euroscepticism among citizens, the successes of Eurosceptic political parties in national and European elections, the negative outcomes of national referenda on major treaty reforms, public controversies on political strategies to cope with the euro crisis – all these incidents suggest that the elitist approach which characterised European integration for decades has arrived at a critical stage. Politicisation, both as an analytical concept and as a political strategy, seems to be the key to an understanding of the acute problems of the European integration project.
Assessments of the ‘politicisation’ phenomenon in the scholarly literature differ widely, however. Although there seems to be agreement ‘that something like politicisation has happened since the mid-1980s’ (Schmitter 2009: 211–212), its level and intensity are still the object of controversies. Three questions are at the heart of the debate. First, there is disagreement over the empirical scope of politicisation. Can we really observe a significant increase in politicisation and what are its characteristic features? Second, it is unclear whether the changes observed are of a lasting nature. Is there a durable structuring of political conflict or do observers exaggerate singular events such as the debate on the Constitutional Treaty or public protest related to the euro crisis in some southern European countries? Third, there are conflicting opinions on the consequences of politicisation for the future of European integration. Will politicisation strengthen or weaken the European project? Is it part of the problem or the key to its solution?
To start with, Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2009), who put the politicisation concept at the centre of a new ‘postfunctionalist theory of European integration’, argue most forcefully that there has been a significant politicisation of the integration process in the post-Maastricht period, which has become visible not only in changing public opinion but also in electoral and protest politics. In their view, the European integration project has become the object of controversial ‘mass politics’.