Risto Heiskala


Tampere, FI


Public and social policy


Economics, institutions and social innovation

By Risto Heiskala

Policy Design in the European Union – An Empire of Shopkeepers in the Making?

Brexit, the immigration crisis, Europe-wide economic stagnation, rising geopolitical tension in the eastern and southern border areas, populist, EU-critical political mobilisation in all member states, increasing difficulties in striking a deal about anything in the union; these are some of the well-known current problems of the European Union. The sheer number of problems, not to mention the difficulty of solving even one of them, is a good reason for asking whether there is any point in publishing yet another book about a union which may well fall apart in the near future.

Well, as one of the two editors (with Jari Aro) and a contributor to five chapters of a new book, which just came out from Palgrave (see: ), and which carries the title of this blog entry, I think there is.

First, I believe that the union is probably emerging from its current problems. How exactly this will happen and what kind of union it will be in future is unknown at the moment, but we can study the facts, pay attention to trends and make educated guesses. This is what the chapters of the book are all about.

Second, even if the union collapses or becomes marginalised to the extent to which it loses most of its power to shape the future of Europe – as has been predicted by some scholars and a vast number of populist politicians – its heritage and its member states will still be here. Within the ruins of the union, they will provide the building blocks of a future Europe. This too is discussed in the book.

There are some background assumptions on which the book is built:

  1. That the union originally emerged as a customs union, and this has left an imprint on its political and administrative footing in the world. It has made the understanding of politics curiously economistic in the union, so that it approaches all political issues from the perspective of markets.
  2. The more the union has enlarged, the more serious the problems of coordination have become. The union started as a customs treaty of six western European countries, and has in the intervening years become an economic and political union of the 28 members (or 27, if we discount the UK) from all regions of Europe today. Coordinating the abundance of member states and different interest groups has become increasingly difficult.
  3. Taken together, these two characteristics make policy design in the EU an extraordinary case of confederation polity in its own right, demanding considerable devotion, negotiating skills, time and patience on the part of politicians and administrators engaged either in the EU system, or one of the member states. Sometimes, even the citizens want to have a say too!
  4. Are we dealing with an ‘empire in the making’? The constant expansion to a union of with some 0.5 billion inhabitants is such an extraordinary process that it provides good reason to ask whether we are dealing with an empire in the making (as claimed by Jan Zielonka, Russell Foster, Hartmut Behr, and Yannis A. Stivachtis, for example).

All the chapters in the book deal with one or more of these questions, and the opening and closing chapters aim to cover most of the discussion by dealing with all four.

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