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European Union

Overview of the basic course sequences

Basic Course 1: Introduction to the Subject
Basic Course 2: Analysis of the Integration Process (I): From the ECSC to the Treaty of Maastricht
Basic Course 3: Analysis of the Integration Process (Il): From the Treaty of Amsterdam to the referendums in France and the Netherlands
Basic Course 4: Institutions belonging to the EU's multi-level system
Basic Course 5: Enlargement of the EU

Basic Course 1: Introduction to the Subject

Why is learning about the EU important?

This first basic course from the Main Subject Group of the European Union (EU) has been structured to offer a few thoughts on the basics of the subject to be addressed, that is, the political system in the EU. But why would we want to learn about the EU, what is so interesting and important about it? What special challenges will have to be faced when addressing this very peculiar structure, which is neither completely compatible with the area of political science dedicated to researching comparative systems nor the area researching international relations, since the EU demonstrates both characteristics of a national political system and international politics.

Of extremely practical importance

One of the most interesting things about the EU is its huge significance in terms of practicality; the fact, for instance, that the influence of the EU is being felt in an increasing number of areas with increasing effect, not only in politics and commerce, but also in everyday life within member states. One example of this influence was the introduction of the Euro as a tactile currency on the 1st of January 2002! Indeed, things have progressed so far that it is simply no longer possible to understand the political system of a member state without having knowledge of the EU. Important decisions are no longer being made in isolation in the parliaments of the member states, but in Brussels.

Important international players

The EU plays a very important role in international politics, for example within the framework of the WTO (World Trade Organisation negotiations.

Examples of where conflict has been resolved successfully

And, thirdly, the EU is also an extremely interesting example of how conflict can be dealt with in a successful and peaceful way. This aspect has faded into the background somewhat, especially among younger generations. Indeed, in this regard it is important to draw attention to the fact that the very states which today are working together intensely, which have created joint institutions and which now share a common currency were once sworn enemies. This also means, then, that addressing the EU and the route that has led it from war to cooperation might provide us with an insight into the conditions that need to be met to make peaceful cooperation possible.

Completely new object

It is also worth mentioning that the EU represents a particularly interesting and exciting area in which to carry out research for political science. The EU has taken up a position between research into political systems and international politics and, like a mirror of the times, it is becoming increasingly clear that the gap between the two is beginning to disappear.
Rapid change of the constitutional framework and the number of members throw up a large number of highly interesting theoretical questions, such as: What is the driving force behind these changes?; in what direction are they leading?; how can these processes be described in analytical and conceptual terms?

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The difficulties and challenges faced when addressing the EU

EU as a new kind of institution

All this leads us to the question as to the special challenges facing us when addressing the EU. What makes dealing with the issue of the EU so difficult? The three illustrations below provide an insight into some of the important points

To begin with we are dealing with a number of completely unique institutions which are unlike anything found in national states or international politics, which cooperate together without a model on which to base their actions and which are also subjected to constant change. Indeed, just getting the general idea about this area requires a great deal of time and effort

The EU as a multi-level system

But it doesn't end there. As can be seen in the following illustration, the EU is not only a few new institutions previously unknown to national states, but a multi-level system consisting of three levels

bulletThe supranational level with the newly created bodies;
bulletThe member-state level, which includes other players such as parliaments, associations and political parties, as well as national governments, and finally
bulletThe level of the regions.

The EU consists of all these ingredients together; they determine its policies and its progress. Just think of the central role played by parliamentary discussions on European politics in countries like Great Britain and Denmark. Or just think about regional policies and some of the agriculture policies that would be unable to implement without cooperation from regional entities.

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The three pillars of the EU

Yet it doesn't even end there, as the next illustration shows. This complex multi-level system, which we have just taken a look at, acts together in differing ways and is split into three areas or pillars.


First pillar: EC

The most important and most comprehensive pillar remains the European Community, whose powers were extended in the Treaty of Maastrict, the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Treaty of Nice. This has been a remarkable development and will be discussed in detail as part of this Main Subject Group.

Second pillar: CFSP

The second pillar, Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP), represents treaty-based intergovernmental foreign policy cooperation outside of the EC, practiced since the beginning of the 70s. The basis of this is largely at an intergovernmental level outside of the treaty establishing the European Community.

Third pillar: CJHA

And, lastly, the third pillar represents an agreement by EU member states to cooperate on justice and home affairs (CJHA) and was also made outside of the treaty establishing the European Community. Thanks to common institutions (Council, Commission, European Parliament, European Court of Justice) and a comprehensive list of objectives across member states, at least some of these differing members of the Union's overall structure have been interlinked. Having said this, however, serious differences exist as to decision-making practices, the decision-making process and as to the influence of the individual institutions and protagonists.

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The benefits of learning about the EU

Understanding politics at the beginning of the 21st century

Now that we have taken a short and hopefully not too forbidding look at the special challenges facing people addressing the EU, we now have to ask ourselves why we would want to face this considerable intellectual challenge in the first place and what we could expect to achieve by doing so. Well, to start with, you will come to understand an organisation that influences our daily life significantly. Indeed, without knowledge of this organisation it is almost impossible to understand and assess politics particularly with regard to the political decisions taking place within the boundaries of your own national state.

Learning about governing beyond the boundries of the nation state

To this end, then, one of the main reasons is to learn about politics in another dimension in terms of its institutions, processes and content, to learn how people come into contact with politics today, that is, without clear lines dividing "domestic" and "foreign policy". Politics is closely interwoven at different levels and is incredibly complicated. You will be learning about the new phenomenon that is "governing beyond the national state", a phenomenon with which political science is having difficultly dealing with. One of the reasons that these difficulties have come about is because it calls into question the traditional separation between the fields of research into comparative systems on the one side and international relationships on the other.

And, indeed, this would also mean that we would be dealing with a phenomenon that is not limited to the EU. In other operational and regional areas, too, international politics is moving towards international normative regulation, meaning that the field of research into comparative systems is being increasingly confronted with the fact that the national state is losing its status both as the undisputed centre of the decision-making process and as the place where authoritative values are allocated. This means, then, that addressing the EU will take you beyond the EU itself and onto one of the most pressing problems facing politics (political science) and into a world that is changing dramatically.

[Author: Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schumann]

... go to Basic Course 2: Analysis of the integration process (I)

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SubjectsHuman Rights  I  Democracy  I  Parties  I  Examples  I  Europe  I  Globalisation  I  United Nations  I  Sustainability

Methods:    Teaching Politics    II    Peace Education    II    Methods


This online service on the subject of political education was developed by agora-wissen, the Stuttgart-based Gesellschaft für Wissensvermittlung über neue Medien und politische Bildung (GbR) (Partnership for the Exchange of Information Using New Media and Political Education). Please contact us with your questions or comments. Translation from German into English by twigg's englisch-Übersetzung