Wednesday, October 27

Intergovernmental or supranational cooperation?

The EU can be considered a unique experiment, writes Morten Egeberg, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Political Science and ARENA – Center for European Studies at the University of Oslo.

Is the EU threatening the nation state?

This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are the responsibility of the writer.

The debate on the EEA Agreement often touches on the question of intergovernmental or supranational cooperation. Challenges that cross national borders require international cooperation. Climate change, migration, and pandemics are examples of this.

Traditionally, this cooperation has taken place at the intergovernmental level. Either bilaterally or multilaterally through international organizations. This is characterized by the fact that members of the national government sit in the driver’s seat and that important decisions are usually made unanimously.

Such an organization means that, first and foremost, national interests are expressed. No one has as its main mandate to promote common interests and see the whole.

An exception is the general secretary of the organization and his staff. These will serve the political leadership, usually a council made up of national ministers.

Clear limitations

The international community faces great challenges. Therefore, it can be argued that such an intergovernmental organization has clear limitations.

If Norway had followed that model, it would have meant that the Norwegian county representatives would meet in Oslo several times a year, make some decisions, and then go home. Apart from a secretariat in Oslo, there would be no governmental apparatus or legislative body in Oslo made up of national politicians.

It is clear that the governance of Norway would have been quite different if we only had municipalities and counties, but no state that could handle everything at the national level.

Therefore, it is also understandable that supranational institutions are established to address cross-border issues between nation states.

Horizontal (“flat”) cooperation structures have their limitations when it comes to tackling serious cross-border challenges. These are intergovernmental bodies, an example.

Unique experiment

The EU can be considered a unique experiment in organizing supranational political institutions that also function supranational in practice.

An important feature is the European Commission, an independent executive body. Here, not only are bureaucrats employed by the EU, but political leaders, commissioners, are full-time EU politicians.

They are expected to focus on common European interests rather than promoting the interests of specific nation states. This is something that is also largely followed in practice.

The same applies to the European Parliament, the only legislative body. The body is made up of EU parliamentarians, that is, they do not come from the parliaments of the Member States, as was the case before 1979.


From a historical perspective, there is no reason to expect that the final destiny of European political organization will be a system in which nation states constitute the highest level of government.

The organization has been in constant flux. From, for example, several hundred political (territorial) units in earlier times to nearly 50 states today.

The organization of relations between European states has also changed. It is no longer primarily based on bilateral diplomacy. It has been complemented by multilateral congresses and eventually permanent international organizations.

This has led to more advanced and specialized forms of organization. This provides a greater ability to handle various cross-border tasks. However, this development has not frictionally reflected functional needs.

Therefore, the individual state can benefit from the transfer of part of its sovereignty.

Power and interests are often related to the preservation of existing structures. Pioneering innovations have only come after major systemic crises, such as the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the World Wars.

The organization of the EU reflects this historical heritage, but at the same time contains a significant innovation in the sense that supranational institutions were introduced for the first time.

Is the EU threatening the nation state?

A supranational government that can pass laws that go beyond national legislation in certain areas necessarily imposes guidelines on the independence of member states.

But the background may be that a single state without affiliation to a supranational organization still does not have true freedom of action, since it alone cannot handle, for example, climate change or pandemics.

Therefore, the individual State can benefit from transferring part of its sovereignty to common institutions in order to solve collective problems.

There is also no indication that the EU is moving towards a unitary state. The EU is based on the fact that the Member States are represented in a legislative body (the Council), as well as in the “supreme council” (the European Council).

This council structure can be seen as the historical imprint of intergovernmentalism within the EU. Here, members of the government act in accordance with their mandate, which is primarily to safeguard national interests within EU cooperation.

Democracy at the supranational level

It seems that many believe that democracy is only possible at the national level, and that it is the bureaucrats who decide in Brussels.

As at the national level, EU bureaucrats, by virtue of their position and knowledge, also influence public decision-making processes. But also in the EU, it is the politicians, in the Commission, the Parliament and the Council, who make the political decisions.

A legislative body, the Council, is made up of ministers from the member states. The other legislative body, the European Parliament, which shares this power with the Council, is made up of politicians elected directly by the citizens of the Member States.

The representatives are organized into party groups that reflect the constellations of national parties: such as right and left, anti-federalists, greens and liberals. The chairman of the commission, who formulates the political program for the commission’s work, is elected and can be deposed by parliament.

The Commission, the executive body, is held accountable to Parliament. In addition, there are many other criteria that can be used to assess the degree of democracy, but the above indicates that forms of democracy are not impossible at the supranational level.

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