ARENA Working Papers
WP 00/22



How, then, does one get there?
An institutionalist response to Herr Fischer�s vision of a European Federation

Johan P. Olsen*
ARENA and University of Oslo

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 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. Neither 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 Humboldt University speech. [1] Here, the existing order based on intergovernmental cooperation and a union of states (Confederacy, Staatenverbund) is to be replaced by a European Federation. Key characteristics of the Federation will be a constitutional treaty centered around basic human and civil rights; shared sovereignty and a clear definition of competences between the European and the nation-state level of governance; a division of powers among the European institutions, including full parliamentarization 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 finalit� 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 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 the 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 organization of societies characterized 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 or omnipotent and, if patient, they may give some direction to institutional developments.

An institutional perspective emphasizes 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. Change in a political order involve not only reorganization and reallocation of resources, but also reconceptualization and change in expectations, preferences, aspirations, mentalities and identities. [2] Yet, institutions are seen as 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 some 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.

The reorganization of power in Europe: Business as usual will not do

To implement a federation, Europe has to "move forward courageously". Business as usual will not do. Full political integration cannot be achieved through the Monnet method of integration, an incremental process with no blueprint of the final state. This method worked well with few member states and a focus on economic integration. It is of "limited use for the political integration and democratization of Europe". According to Fischer, the method is in a crisis that cannot be solved according to the method's own logic. [4]

Fischer is well aware that his plan for reorganizing power in Europe is contested. Implementing the reforms involves huge challenges, procedural as well as substantive, and some will view the plan as utterly unworkable. Fischer is also aware that he is up against strong institutional traditions. The European political order has for a long time been constituted on the principles of state sovereignty and national self-determination. Europe, as he says, is a continent "full of different peoples, cultures, languages and histories". The region is torn between competing visions of possible political communities and forms of governance. There is deep divergence of opinion over the proper role of the European Union vis-a-vis the nation state and the proper role of politics vis-a-vis the economy and society. Currently, many call the integration project into question, finding it irrelevant or dangerous.

So, the balancing of unity and diversity is problematic. Moving towards a Federation may drive European states apart rather than closer together. There may be a loss of European identity and internal coherence. Yet, the EU acquis should not be jeopardized, the Union not divided and the bonds holding the EU together should not be damaged. "It would be historically absurd and utterly stupid if Europe, at the very time when it is at long last reunited, were to be divided once again".

Fischer's answer is a stepwise political development. First, cooperation would be enhanced between those willing and able to cooperate more closely, as in the Economic and Monetary Union and Schengen. Second, a centre of gravity would be established, around a European framework treaty - the core of the Federation's "constitution". On this basis, the Federation would develop its own institutions and establish a government through which the EU could speak with one voice on as many issues as possible. Furthermore, there would be a strong parliament and a directly elected president. An avant-garde of member states would from the start comprise all the elements of the future federation. Third, there would be a completion of the political integration into a European Federation.

The unanswered questions, in Fischer's view, are: Within the next decade, will a majority of the member states take the leap into full integration and agree on a European constitution? If that does not happen, will an avant-garde emerge? When will this happen? Who will be involved? Will the core emerge within or outside the framework provided by the treaties?

The completion of European integration will depend upon the alliance between France and Germany, in Fischer's view. No country will be forced into a level of integration it does not want. Yet, the reluctant countries will not be allowed to prevent others from further integration outside the treaties. The hope is that the avant-garde will work as "a magnet of integration open to all", like the EC and the EU have done historically. To make the federal scheme workable, the states, with their national institutions, traditions and identities, have to be involved in the change process. The nation-states also "will retain a much larger role than the L�nder have in Germany". Furthermore, sub-national units, such as the German L�nder, will not accept that their competencies are weakened as a result of further political integration in Europe. [5]

Political pawns, engineers and gardeners

The dynamics of European integration reactivate unresolved questions worked on by practitioners and theoreticians for centuries. What are the "driving forces" forming and changing political orders? What is the role of human intention, reflection and choice in the development of political institutions and good government? In institutional matters, do we know how to reform? How, and under what conditions, can political actors rise above, and get beyond, existing institutional structures? [6]

Students of institutional dynamics have given very different answers to these questions. In particular, they have disagreed about political agency, the relative importance of environmental imperatives and intrinsic dynamics beyond the comprehension and control of political actors; and historical processes of gradually evolving systems of meaning and incremental change. Therefore, different perspectives will suggest different answers to what kind of processes are likely to produce radical change in the European polity, of the kind suggested by Fischer.

Pawns, organic development and imperative processes. Political actors are sometimes portrayed as largely impotent pawns. They are captives of imperative (technological, economic, demographic etc.) processes in their environments, or of intrinsic institutional dynamics beyond their comprehension and control. They may codify, through formal reorganization, change that has already happened, but they are unable to delibrately structure future institutional developments. The key processes of change are external competitive selection or internal organic processes of institutional birth, growth, stagnation and death. In the first case, only comparatively efficient institutions and political orders survive. The others lose support and disappear. In the second case, all institutions have their heydays. Then they wither and die, whatever reform plans political leaders present (Kimberly and Miles 1980, Olsen 1992).

Engineers, design and institutional choice. In contrast, the concept of governance is about how differently, over any given period of time, our social and political life, can be purposefully shaped (Dunn 1990: 161). An institutional reform policy is about explicitly changing social and political life through new institutional arrangements. A constitutional reform policy is about changing the basic institutions and principles of governance in order to change the identity and character of the polity.

Portraying political leaders as institutional engineers and institutions as malleable is consistent with a democratic ethos of governance. Democracies are supposed to be able to design and choose institutions in order to improve the welfare of citizens. The key questions involved in explaining institutional dynamics, then, are: Who are the significant actors? What do they want an institutional arrangement to accomplish? What do they believe different arrangements will accomplish? What resources can they mobilize?

Under special circumstances, "We the people" can form a constitutional convention and deliberately rearrange the whole political order (Ackerman 1991). Under normal conditions, political intention, will and power secure rational adaptation of institutions not working well. Institutional dynamics become a question of bargaining and building winning coalitions among competing interests. In a short-term perspective, however, constitutive institutions and rules limit the legitimate space of institutional design - what can be changed, how fast, and in what ways. Heterogeneous societies in particular demand strongly qualified majorities to change the power of different branches and levels of government or the relative power of public authorities and citizens (Weaver and Rockman 1993: 464).

The pawn- and engineering perspectives lead to different assessments of reform plans. Consider, for instance, the constitution-writing aspect. In a period of flux, uncertainty and ambiguity, an engineering approach suggests that the time is ripe for deliberate intervention, to give more structure to current developments. The pawn perspective suggests the opposite. A period of flux, uncertainty and ambiguity is definitely not the right moment for codification and constitution writing. Both perspectives, however, suppose that the comparative efficiency of forms of governance and organization is the key factor determining their chances of survival.

To understand the dynamics of European integration, however, we have to go beyond institutional change as a simple reflection of differences in the comparative functional efficiency of alternative forms. That is, we have to question the idea that political institutions normally adapt fairly quickly to changes in external conditions and human purposes through processes of competitive selection and rational adaptation. [7]

Gardeners, incremental reforms and meanders. Studies of comprehensive institutional reform in large-scale, complex and dynamic systems with unresolved conflict suggest that reorganization of the polity with a single scheme is unlikely to be politically digestable. Change is not well understood and controlled, and actual reforms are usually incremental rather than comprehensive. Governance is less a matter of engineering than of gardening. [8] Existing institutional configurations usually are the result of long historical processes, involving conflicts, victories, defeats and compromises, as well as processes of interpretation, learning and habituation. [9] It is difficult to subject institutional evolution to tight control, and history becomes a meander (March 1994).

In this perspective, reforms are influenced by environments and political actors. Yet, institutions do not adapt instantaneously or efficiently to minor changes in will, power, or circumstances. Institutions cannot be changed into any arbitrary form and comprehensive reform requires strong organizational capabilities to stabilize attention, mobilize resources and cope with resistance (March and Olsen 1983, 1989). Change does not start with clear problem definitions and objectives leading to tailor-made institutional designs, as suggested by instrumental-functional approaches. Often change takes the form of deliberation and "sounding out" processes, involving the use of ambiguity, "soft laws" and tacit agreements (Blichner and Sangolt 1994, Sverdrup 1999). [10]

Utopia? Vision?

The idea of functional competitive selection is consistent with the traditional functional-utilitarian justification of the European Union. The raison d'etre of the Union is its presumed superiority in problem-solving and conflict resolution, compared to other forms, and in particular the functional utility of the nation-state. Likewise, increasing international interdependence and globalization is seen to require further European integration.

In the current situation, however, there is no guarantee that characteristics of the objective environment, through processes of competition and selection, by functional necessity will dictate specific forms of organization and governance. Moreover, it is not at all obvious that such processes will drive out existing institutional arrangements and replace them with Fischer's vision of a European federation. Instead, a common economic-technological deterministic perspective sees political leadership as irrelevant and portrays attempts at European integration towards a state-like polity as "ironic" and "tragic". This is because such efforts work against the overwhelming forces of a global borderless economy of competitive markets (Ohmae 1995:38).

More trust has been invested in the idea that the European Union already has intrinsic dynamics of integration. For instance, The Treaty of Rome (1957) asserted a determination "to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". The Maastricht Treaty (1992) was presented as "a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". Now, the Preamble of the Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union claims that "the peoples of Europe have established an ever closer union between them". Existing internal dynamics are seen inevitably to lead to a closer union, even without any deliberate political act. [11]

Fischer, however, is not a utopian in the sense that he expects an external or internal "hidden hand" to produce a European Federation. Quite the opposite; he sees internal dynamics of the EU, as well as global changes, as demanding political leadership. The steps toward a constituent treaty, a precondition for full integration, "require a deliberate political act to reestablish Europe". Institutional reforms are supposed to help the EU both to cope with enlargement and increasing internal complexity, and to make Europe's voice better heard throughout the world.

Neither is Fischer a utopian in the sense that he expects his reform plans to be accepted by all significant actors. Traditionally, institutional reforms in the EU have been presented as Pareto improvements, that is, changes where some gain and no one loses. This image has become problematic as European integration has become more politicized. And as could be expected, the Fischer plan has been received with scepticism or hostility by many actors.

For instance, it has been argued that from an East European point of view, the Fischer plan and enlargement cannot be combined, because it will doom the Eastern members to be second class members, permanently excluded from the core (Zielonka 2000). For a British opponent, the reform plan looks like "a Franco-German plot to destabilise the Union". The French and the Germans are seen as wanting a directorate of larger member States, at the expense of the Treaty-based inter-institutional system. [12] Creating a secretariat for an avant-garde outside the EU institutions gets little support from Commission President Romano Prodi. [13] The Commission is also faced with the dilemma whether to work for further integration with a pioneer group led by some major powers, or to protect the coherence of the EU and the position of the smaller member states.

Several small states have been concerned that the reforms will change the power balance in favor of the larger countries. The issue is hardly whether some actors will have more power than others. They already do. Independent of the current legal forms in the EU, a basic reality from the European balance-of-power era is still alive. Cooperation within the EU has been based on a tacit understanding that some countries are more equal than others. [14] The issue is rather how much the power balance will change and whether it is possible to find a legitimate pathway towards a European Federation.

Finally, the plan has not received overwhelming support even in Germany. Fischer presented his speech as his personal views. While realizing that it would not really be possible to do so, he explicitly tried to remove his hat and mantle as the German foreign minister. However, Chancellor Gerhard Schr�der has characterized the idea of a European president as "a perfect illusion", presented by "one of the leaders of the Green Party seeking an identity". [15] European Commissioner G�nther Verheugen - a German national - has argued (in the S�ddeutsche Zeitung) against the idea of a core and warned against the EU becoming a superstate like the USA.

What, then, are the possibilities for institutional engineering? The ideas of federalism and a dynamic core are hardly new in the European context, but so far they have received modest support. During the Amsterdam process and the current IGC it has been difficult to get agreement on comprehensive institutional reforms. Is the Fischer plan, in the face of the hostility, scepticism or apathy doomed to be utopian?

A power struggle over reforms, given the traditional consensus norms in the EU and the current preferences, world-views and powers of the various actors, is likely to threaten the EU itself, or to change the Union in fundamental ways. This is so even if Fischer's view is triumphant in the end. Most likely the plan will remain a Utopia and a source of disappointment and frustration - unless there are significant changes in key concepts and vocabularies, preferences and world-views.

Such changes are, however, not impossible to achieve for patient institutional gardeners. Political leaders are neither omnipotent, nor impotent. From an institutional perspective, democratic institutions and identities cannot be engineered and re-engineered overnight. There are limitations of transformative leadership through institutional design, and in order to avoid the utopian trap, reformers have to go beyond ordinary processes of coercion, exchange, bargaining, negotiation and coalition building. Seen as a contribution to a future debate - a broad, democratic constitutional debate on the preferred political order, something that has been missing so far in the EU - Fischer's speech may come closer to a vision than a utopia.

Options for institutional gardeners

Fischer argues that "common laws can be a highly integrative force". The current IGC also, consistent with the legal tradition of the EU, focuses on formal-legal aspects such as the composition of the Commission, the weighing of votes in the Council and the extension of majority voting. In contrast, from an institutional perspective, comprehensive change in a political order involves not only affecting human conduct and formal-legal institutions, but also affecting peoples' inner state of mind, their moral and intellectual qualities, their identities and sense of belonging (Mill 1861; 1962:32).

An institutional/gardening perspective doubts that democratic reformers can be successful independent of properties of the population. That is, it doubts whether it is possible to develop democratic institutions without democrats, or a European Federation without Europeans, so that the legitimacy of institutional arrangements is based solely on a continuous proof of their functional efficiency (Olsen 1997: 222). Political gardening requires knowledge about the mechanisms through which different institutions and processes of opinion- and will formation may influence the mentality and identity of individuals and collectivities. On the one hand, such changes can be the result of a political community making decisions and debating the challenges and opportunities they face, and the principles, rules and procedures by which they want to live. On the other hand, changes can be traced back to processes of socialization in educational institutions, both universities and mass schooling (Soysal and Strang 1989, March and Olsen 2000).

In this perspective, political leadership includes affecting how Europeans come to think about what constitutes unity or disunity, as well as the reasons for establishing and changing political borders, common purposes and projects, institutions and forms of governance. The EU also has numerous arenas for interaction, argumentation, problem solving and conflict resolution and gaining experience through interaction may create habits of working together, friendship, group loyalties and knowledge about others. These may create convergence, mutual confidence and positive trust spirals. However, they may also create awareness of differences and produce conflicts and confrontations (March and Olsen 1998). Political gardeners can use such arenas for pushing the system in a consistent direction. They may stabilize attention, develop a shared vocabulary, shared interpretations of experience, criteria of assessment and aspiration levels, and they may improve institutional adaptability.

Stabilize attention. Fischer has focused attention on major institutional reform, but he also emphasizes the importance of different time scales. His own time horizon is "far beyond the comming decade and the intergovernmental conference". In this time perspective, there are many possible future distractions. Comprehensive change in institutions and identities may take decades or generations, and because large scale reforms are weakly institutionalized, they usually attract a variety of issues, often loosely coupled to the reform itself.

As argued by March and Olsen in a study of comprehensive administrative reforms in the United States: "Although it is hard to predict what specific crisis, scandal, or war will divert presidents from the reorganization arena, it is easy to predict that something will" (March and Olsen 1983: 286). The result is that reformers are frequently distracted and disappointed. However, persistence may pay off. Sometimes short-run failures turn into long-run successes, as old plans are reactivated under new and more favourable circumstances (March and Olsen 1983: 287).

A possible first lesson, therefore, is that the realization of a large-scale reform vision requires an ability to stabilize and institutionalize attention and resources around comprehensive reforms, so that incremental steps can be tied together into a long-term consistent plan. [16]

Develop a shared vocabulary. Fischer is well aware that some words have to be used with caution. For instance, the term "federation" irritates many Britons. He does not want to irritate anyone, yet, he has not been able to come up with another word. Simultaneously, he feels a need to avoid the misunderstanding that he is really suggesting a "re-nationalization". Likewise, he wants to avoid scaring anyone: "Let's not misunderstand each other: closer cooperation does not automatically lead to full integration".

These expectations have turned out to be realistic. The reform proposal has come to mean different things to different actors. Consider, for instance, the idea of "a federation of nation states" with a sharing of sovereignty, and clear demarcation of powers, between levels of governance. In Britain federalism is, in spite of Fischer's caution, associated with a hierarchy between levels of government (H. Wallace 2000b). For others "division of sovereignty" means that Fischer "distances himself from the concept of a European superstate transcending and replacing the national democracies" (B�rzel and Risse 2000:1). More generally, "federalism", "constitution", "democracy", "sovereignty", "enhanced cooperation", "Europe", etc., are words without a shared meaning across EU member states, a fact that makes fruitful deliberation less likely.

A possible second lesson, therefore, is that implementation of a reform vision will depend as much on leadership through reconceptualization, as through reorganization. Success will be facilitated by the development of a shared vocabulary and concepts, or at least a repertoire of such vocabularies and concepts, so that actors can "translate" between different interpretations of key concepts.

Develop shared interpretations of experience. In fairly stable periods, institutions provide languages, concepts and repertoires of legitimate accounts. They help participants to make sense of an ambiguous, uncertain and changing world and present rules of appropriate or exemplary behavior (March and Olsen 1989, 1995, Powell and DiMaggio 1991: 15). In periods of transformation, the organizing power of institutionalized concepts, schemas and scripts is weakened. There are competing institutions and interpretations. Questions are raised why the code of conduct, as well as the forms of organization and governance, are different in one country, or in one context, from another (Elias 1982).

Major reform projects provide an opportunity for developing shared interpretations, affirming legitimate values and institutions, and changing the climate of opinion. A public discourse about the adequacy or inadequacy of existing institutional arrangements can be a process of civic education through which European citizens develop an understanding of what constitutes a good society and system of governance, i.e., the legitimate constitutional principles of authority, power and accountability and the normative-ethical basis and value commitments and beliefs of the polity (March and Olsen 1983, Olsen 1992: 259).

A possible third lesson, in this perspective, is that an important aspect of political leadership, and way to avoid the utopian trap, is to provide adequate accounts of the past and visions for the future. Of course, agreement is by no means guaranteed. Struggles over belief-systems and causal models may be as fierce as conflicts over normative criteria.

Develop shared criteria of assessment. The prospects of avoiding the utopian trap will also depend on what reformers aspire to achieve through constitutional reforms. A political institution can be assessed instrumentally on the basis of its contribution to substantive (policy) results. Or a structural arrangement can be evaluated deontologically, i.e., on the basis of specific properties of the institution itself. The test then is not an issue of precise calculation of the effectiveness and efficiency of alternative designs for policy outcomes in specific situations. Instead, it is whether the institution is seen as the appropriate means to cope with certain classes of tasks and situations within a culture (Olsen 1997). The issue is whether institutional practices and rules are consistent with basic principles of reason and morality in a culture -- possibly involving general conceptions of good/evil, just/unjust, right/wrong, legal/illegal, true/false -- so that it becomes a duty for citizens to follow its rules and prescriptions. For instance, support for representative institutions is a commitment to a long-term institutional arrangement, not to a specific outcome (Pitkin 1972:234). Likewise, the rule of law, the prohibition of retroactive laws and recruitment based on merit exemplify legitimizing principles not linked to the immediate substantive outcome of specific decisions. Such principles and institutions structure and discipline policy making processes. They encourage some types of behavior and inhibit others. Yet, they do not determine precise policy outcomes.

Fischer's proposal has elements of a deontological approach, for instance, through its emphasis on democracy and transparency. It aims at developing basic principles for a workable system more than achieving an immediate policy outcome In comparison, the British tradition has been described as instrumental. Political institutions, and reform plans, are primarily assessed as instruments for achieving policy outcomes. There is a preference for substance to determine form, and a standard question is, will this reform lead to better policy outcomes? In the EU context this leads to a preference for pragmatic, case-by-case cooperation, and to local experimentation rather than a single blueprint (H. Wallace 2000b). [17]

A possible fourth lesson is that visionary leaders should clarify whether reforms aim at changing the basic principles and rules for the organization of political power, and thus providing a framework for policy processes, or at achieving specific policy outcomes. The latter approach is probably more likely to generate frustration.

Clarify aspirations. Political leaders also have different aspirations when it comes to what kind of relationships should tie people in Europe together, and therefore what kind of polity the EU should become. Aspirations have also changed over time. The revolt against the Maastricht Treaty created a perceived need for "heightening the sense of belonging to the Union and enhancing its legitimacy" (Commission 1995: 7). Furthermore, debates over the Rights Charter and the Austrian crisis have reactivated a debate over the cultural identity of the EU.

The general issue is how flexible are political identities, and through what processes are they created, maintained and changed? Within the EU, there is an awareness that building trust and cohesion among European peoples and governments will take time (Commission 1992: 8). In the short run, identities are unlikely to change in the absence of dramatic external shocks creating one of the "great mentality-shaping controversies" (Habermas 1988: 12). In the face of cultural heterogeneity, it is also questionable whether a shared program of civic education is possible in the short run. What should be the content and who should be in charge of developing the program? What institutions are needed in order to develop a feeling of a democratic, European identity? Given that identities change only slowly, the leadership challenge is to influence perceptions of the desirability and capability of multiple identities, and the perceived compatability among competing identities, among Europeans.

A possible fifth lesson is that visionary leaders need to clarify the assumptions made about the role of shared identities and a sense of belonging - what they assume binds people in Europe together and what keeps them apart. Likewise, they need to clarify their assumptions about how fast, and through what mechanisms, identities may change. Europe constituted as a market community of exchange and a functional-utilitarian unit, may not alone provide an adequate foundation for further integration. Europe constituted as a cultural community based on shared values, is likely to be beyond the reach in the near future. Plans for further integration based on Europe as a legal community of shared rights and duties, and a political community based on shared institutions of governance, are less likely to be utopian dreams (Olsen 1998).

Improve institutional adaptability. Visionary leaders in the EU have to "take the law seriously" (Joerges 1996), yet, they have to avoid becoming overly legalistic and formalistic. The problem of non-effective constitutions and institutions is well known. Constitutions can be written and re-written and organizational charts can be drawn and re-drawn. Still, such changes may have a modest impact on the "living institutions" of a society (Olsen 1996, Laffan 1999). Formal treaties and constitutional provisions alone cannot explain the Union's dynamics (Dehousse and Majone 1994: 92). Change has often been incremental and part of the daily practice of governance and adjudication, later codified in treaty form by intergovernmental conferences (Jachtenfuchs and Kohler-Koch 1996, Kohler-Koch and Eising 1999).

The distribution of formal-legal authority is only a limited part of the distribution of power resources. Visionary leaders, therefore, have to make realistic assessments concerning what modifications of practices can be achieved through changes in formal-legal institutional arrangements. They have to consider both to what degree and under what circumstances institutions can be deliberately restructured; and what the likely effects of changing formal organizational charts and rules are in a world where many other resources than formal-legal authority count (Olsen 1996: 238).

Likewise, avoiding the utopian trap may depend on the leaders' understanding of what makes some institutions able to continously learn and adapt, while inertia in other institutions creates large gaps between existing structures and underlying realities. Experiential learning has been suggested as the basis of governing the future polity (Deutsch 1981: 338). Success may, however, depend on insight into the many ways in which such processes are less than perfect, [18] and how the imperfections of mundane processes of learning and incremental adaptations allow for comprehensive institutional reform. In general, the more inefficient ordinary processes of adaptation are, the more likely that an institution or a regime may collapse like a house of cards and be replaced by a new one (Olsen 1992: 256, 1997: 209).

A possible sixth lesson for visionary leaders, then, is that they have to take an interest in the dynamics of "living" institutions and not only formal-legal arrangements. A precondition for willed radical reforms may be a better understanding of why ordinary processes of learning and adaptation sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.

Governing through institutional change

European cooperation has already produced a dense institutional order - a quasi-federal polity and a system of governance based on constitution-like treaties (Stone Sweet and Sandholtz 1998:1, B�rzel and Risse 2000). Yet, many recent integration initiatives have been initiated outside the EU institutions, and the European polity is still in flux. The EU is an unsettled political order, in terms of geographical reach, functional scope and institutional balance. The Union simultaneously faces questions such as: who is going to belong to the political community and where should its external borders be drawn? What should be the shared agenda, purposes and projects? How are collective issues to be dealt with, and in terms of which common institutions and principles? How are such choices to be justified and legitimized?

Reorganizing political power in Europe involves a delicate re-balancing between levels of governance and institutions. The EU has gone through a variety of stages (Schuppert 1995), but the preconditions for a European federation are not well understood. The long-term history of government may also indicate that there is no such thing as an end-state, but rather a succession of forms of government (Finer 1997). Fischer's speech can be seen as an attempt to provide leadership and a vision of a new political order in Europe in a period of uncertainty and ambiguity. He proposes further political integration, but he is also setting a limit for integration, short of a United States of Europe. Will, then, a majority of the member states take the leap into full integration? Will an avant-garde emerge? Will the core emerge within or outside the framework provided by the treaties? Will there be destructive conflicts over further integration?

The main argument of this paper is that what looks utopian for political pawns and engineers, may be a little less so for patient political gardeners. In particular, patient gardeners may turn utopias into visions, and give a consistent and desired direction to European developments, if they understand well the dynamics of political institutions and identities. That is, the institutions' abilities to adapt spontaneously to major changes in their environments, the environments' abilities to eliminate non-adaptive institutions, and the latitude of purposeful institutional reform.

One key aspect of understanding comprehensive institutional change is to develop a better comprehension of how existing institutional characteristics and histories affect institutional change. This includes developing better insight into the institutional preconditions for creating legitimacy and deserved support through public debates about political institutions and the organization of governance.


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* ARENA and University of Oslo, e-mail:,tel. +47 22 85 76 78, fax: +47 22 85 78 32

[1]. Speech by Joschka Fischer at the Humboldt University in Berlin, 12 May 2000. ( The German title was: "Vom Staatenverbund zur F�deration - Gedanken �ber die Finalit�t der europ�ischen Integration". When quotationmarks 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 that aspect is therefore left out in my respons, too. Of course, this does not imply that the financial and reallocation aspects are not highly significant for the institutional future of Europe.

[3]. March and Olsen 1983,1989,1995,1998, Olsen 1992,1996,1997,1998, Brunsson and Olsen 1993, March 1999.

[4]. As emphasized by Wallace, the EU uses a variety of methods of policy making (H. Wallace 2000a).

[5]. Agence Europe No 7726 Saturday 27 May 2000: "German L�nder repeat to Prodi that ratification of revised treaty will be difficult if their powers are not preserved".

[6]. Hamilton, Jay and Madison 1787; 1964:1, Mill 1861; 1962:1, March and Olsen 1989,1995,1998, Olsen 1997,Brunsson and Olsen 1993, Sartori 1997: xi.

[7]. March and Olsen 1989, North 1990. Brennan and Buchanan also criticise the hidden hand assumption in economic theory: ..."great damage has been and is being done by modern economists who argue, indirectly, that basic institutional change will somehow spontaneously evolve in the direction of structural efficacy" (Brennan and Buchanan 1985: 149).

[8]. Szanton 1981: 24. See also March and Olsen 1983: 287, 1989,1995, Olsen 1996 Benz and Goetz 1996, Knill 1999.

[9]. This is certainly true for state- and nation building processes in Europe (Eisenstadt and Rokkan 1973, Rokkan 1975,1999), and also for the development within the EU (Pierson 1996: 126-7).

[10]. Sounding out, in contrast to Habermasian force-free deliberation, involves the systematic use of ambiguity. It is important for each participant to avoid taking an early stand. While the participants will try to reveal the trend in their beliefs and preferences, and attempt to move the final outcome toward a desired end result, they will avoid very accurate indications of beliefs and preferences. They will always retain some degree of counterargument and contradiction in their statements. The process is time consuming. The outcome is the result of more and more participants accepting a certain alternative as the best solution, while other alternatives "fade away" (Olsen 1972: 273). The behavior is purposeful, but it is reflecting what in a culture is defined as appropriate behavior and process, not strategic calculation.

[11]. Draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Brussels, 28 July 2000, Charte 4422/00 (

[12]. British Liberal Democrate Andrew Duff, Agence Europe No 7723, Wednesday 24 May 2000.

[13]. Agence Europe No 7759 Saturday 15 July 2000 p.5.

[14]. For instance, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker has argued that "larger European states have always preserved their special influence (...). Nothing will change that (...). The voice of the French President in the European Council counts more than my own. He knows it, I know it and accept it and there is no need to formalise this in the treaty" (Speech at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, June 7 2000, Agence Europe No 7735, 10 June 2000).

[15]. Interview with Le Figaro (Agence Europe, No 7761 Wednesday 19 July 2000 p.6).

[16]. The argument is relevant in the EU-context because, on the one hand, outcomes are rarely entirely anticipated by those who strike strategic bargains (W. Wallace 2000). On the other hand, the short-term preoccupation of institutional designers have led them to make decisions that have undermined their long-term control (Pierson 1996: 156).

[17]. The differences should not be exaggerated. During the Thatcher-period reforms were to a considerable extent driven by principles and ideology, without clear evidence about exact policy impacts (Hood 1996).

[18]. Levitt and March 1988, March 1991,1994,1999, Levinthal and March 1993.

[Date of publication in the ARENA Working Paper series: 15.10.2000]