The Conceptual Politics of European Integration


Transformations of Concepts and Institutions in the European Polity (TRACE), 2015-2019


by PD Dr. Claudia Wiesner


Background: PD Dr. Wiesner is currently a Docent and Senior Researcher at Jyväskylä University, as well as a Senior Guest Researcher at Technische Universität Darmstadt. Until September 2015 she was acting professor for Comparative Politics at Marburg University and Bochum University. From December 2010 to March 2014 she was an EU funded Marie Curie research fellow at Jyväskylä University. In this period she worked upon the application of Conceptual History methodology in the analysis of European Integration. She developed a broad research agenda and published several articles and conference papers as well as two books (Wiesner 2014; Wiesner and Schmidt-Gleim 2014). Wiesner´s work on Conceptual History and European Integration will also build the background for her research in the part project “The Conceptual Politics of European Integration”.

Rationale: European integration has been going on for more than 60 years now. It brought about numerous changes in the institutional, political and social realities of the member states and their citizens. These influences and the dynamics between the member states and the EU in political science have been discussed under the labels of Europeanisation and Multi-Level-Governance (see e.g. Bretherton and Mannin 2013; Piattoni 2010). The respective studies mostly concentrate on `hard facts´ like institutions, competencies, laws, or policy outputs. But how have the respective changes been conceptualised by politicians and citizens in the member states? What have been the words, terms, concepts, and arguments used to understand, explain, and legitimise European integration and the changes it enhanced? And how are these conceptualisations of European Integration related to the integration process itself, how did they contribute to shape it?

These crucial questions have only partly been researched so far. Approaches using discourse- or frame-analytical methods have brought key results here; the most important finding being that in the member states specific national EU conceptions have developed. I define national EU conceptions as (at least temporarily) stable patterns of meaning that are ascribed to both the EU and the respective nation state. They serve at legitimising European integration in the member states, and they decisively shape the positioning of national governments and national institutions towards the EU (and formerly the EEC and EC). They are to be understood as deeply rooted, overarching rationales behind national EU policies (Wiesner 2011; Wiesner 2014).

National EU conceptions, as such, have been thoroughly researched in recent years (see e.g. Lacroix and Nicolaïdis 2010; Karama 2001; Waever 2005; Hörber 2006; Risse-Kappen 2015; Banchoff 1999; Diez Medrano 2003). Research has shown that national EU conceptions have to be closely woven into the respective national identity conceptions to be convincing and to get accepted. Therefore they differ in terms of their historical backgrounds, main components, and argumentative direction. They are also marked by specific interpretations and usages of key concepts such as democracy, freedom, integration, state or citizen. But the second aspect mentioned above has been much less explored: how do  national EU conceptions interrelate with the course of integration itself (as one exception Schmidt 2006)? The first innovation of the research project, therefore, is that three national EU conceptions (the German, French and British) will be studied both with regard to their development and their interrelations to institutional and policy changes on the national and EU level, which has not yet been done.

The second innovation of the project is that this analysis will be based on the methodological perspective and the techniques of conceptual history, which is unknown so far in the analysis of European integration in political science. The added value of this approach is apparent: different from Discourse Analysis or other interpretative approaches, who put the linguistic activities in their centre of attention, Conceptual History adds an additional layer of analysis. It especially focuses on the missing link I am interested in here, namely the interrelations of linguistic activities and social and institutional changes in the material world, which are especially virulent in European integration. In Conceptual History perspective, concepts both influence and reflect social, institutional and political changes. As Reinhart Koselleck famously put it, “concepts are both indicators of and factors in political and social life […] concepts are like joints linking language and the extralinguistic world“(Koselleck 1996).

Based on this approach, the project will help to fill some gaps in current research on national EU conceptions, which regard, first, the role of inner-member-state debates and national political cultures: Research has shown that so far, national politicians have been the main actors in shaping national EU conceptions. But politicians of different camps interpret EU conceptions differently, and therefore, changes in government influence the interpretation of national EU conceptions and national EU policies. It was seldom studied how, why, and by whom the EU conceptions were interpreted differently, and the related national conflicts and debates rarely have been analysed in terms of actors, interests, strategies, arguments and moves, but mainly with regard to their outcomes (i.e. voting results). Second, we know that EU conceptions influence national EU policies and vice-versa, but it remains to be studied how and why this is the case. For instance, the French parliamentary debate on the European Political Community in the 1950s ended with the non-ratification of the respective Treaty, and hence decisively influenced the course of integration. But how and why was this no-vote argued for, and why did the arguments work? Third, how events on the EU level relate to the development of national EU conceptions and the respective national debates is another neglected topic in current research: especially core decisions regarding new Treaties or the sovereign debt crisis can influence national EU conceptions, as they change the EU and hence the object of the EU conceptions. These changes in the degree and profile of the EU integration require a positioning of national politicians in national debates.

Objectives and project parts: The objective to study national EU conceptions, their development and interrelations to institutional and policy changes on national and EU level, will be pursued in three interconnected parts.

Part 1): A detail study of three national EU conceptions. In this part, the goal is to study three national EU conceptions and the ways they are shaped by the relevant actors (national and EU politicians, functionaries of e.g. Commission and Council), and in connection to policy processes and events at EU and national level. The project will study these dynamics by concentrating on parliaments and parliamentary debates as they represent nodal points of institutional changes and their conceptualization in the EU multi-level system. The national EU conceptions will be analysed in a) a long-term perspective since the beginnings of European integration, b) in a comparative perspective on two founding members Germany and France and the notorious “bad guy” Great Britain, and c) in relation to key events on the EU level and in national EU policies.

Part 2): A broad and comparative overview on the conceptualisation of European integration in the EU´s member states. This goal shall be treated by a network of international scholars that will be set up and coordinated by the PI. The work of this network represents the key to studying national EU conceptions in a comparative perspective in all, or at least most of the EU´s member states, as this task is far too broad for a single researcher in terms of workload and with regard to language barriers. The component thus is decisive to allow for including also the smaller, as well as the northern and southern member states. Prepared by international conferences, the outcome of the network´s work will be a volume on “Conceptual Histories of European Integration”, edited by the PI in the European Conceptual History Series (ECH), published by Berghahn Press. The book series is edited by Michael Freeden (Nottingham), Willibald Steinmetz (Bielefeld), Diana Mishkova (Sofia), Henrik Stenius (Helsinki) and Javier Fernandez Sebastian (Bilbao) and the first three volumes (Introduction, Parliamentarism, Liberalism) are currently forthcoming. The editorial board asked Wiesner to become the main editor for a volume on European Integration.

3) Methodology. The third part consists in systematically developing and applying the methodology of conceptual history in political science and comparative studies on European integration, opening up a new focus and revising established approaches. So far, conceptual history methodology is only sparsely thematised in political science subdisciplines other than political theory. In my research I will develop further such a political-science specific approach to conceptual change, especially with regard to contemporary phenomena and the analysis of European integration, including also the comparative perspective and the analysis of a multi-level regime. Beyond the current practices of comparative conceptual history, this will allow for a comparative analysis of political regimes, processes, and patterns of meaning.



Banchoff, Thomas. 1999. “National Identity and EU Legitimacy in Germany and France.” In Legitimacy and the European Union: The Contested Polity, edited by Thomas Banchoff and Mitchell P. Smith, 180–98. London: Routledge.

Bretherton, Charlotte, and Michael L. Mannin. 2013. The Europeanization of European politics. First edition. Europe in transition : the NYU European studies series.

Diez Medrano, Juan. 2003. Framing Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hörber, Thomas. 2006. The foundations of Europe. European integration ideas in France, Germany and Britain in the 1950s. Wiesbaden: VS.

Karama, Miriam. 2001. Struktur und Wandel der Legitimationsideen deutscher Europapolitik. Bonn: Europa-Union-Verlag.

Koselleck, Reinhart. 1996. “A Response to a comment on Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe.” In The meaning of historical terms and concepts. New studies on Begriffsgeschichte, edited by Hartmut Lehmann and Melvin Richter, 59–70. Washington: German Historical Institute.

Lacroix, Justine, and Kalypso Nicolaïdis. 2010. European stories: Intellectual debates on Europe in national contexts. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Piattoni, Simona. 2010. The theory of multi-level governance: Conceptual, empirical, and normative challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Risse-Kappen, Thomas, ed. 2015. European public spheres: Politics is back. Contemporary European politics. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Schmidt, Vivien A. 2006. Democracy in Europe: the EU and national polities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waever, Ole. 2005. “European integration and Security: Analysing French and German Discourses on State, Nation and Europe.” In Discourse Theory in European Politics, edited by David Howarth and Jacob Torfing, 33–67. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wiesner, Claudia. 2011. “The Rhetorical Construction of EU-Europe and National EU Concepts.” In Parliament and Europe: rhetorical and conceptual studies on their contenporary connections, edited by Claudia Wiesner, Tapani Turkka, and Kari Palonen, 127–42. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

———. 2014. Demokratisierung der EU durch nationale Europadiskurse? Strukturen und Prozesse europäischer Identitätsbildung im deutsch-französischen Vergleich. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Wiesner, Claudia, and Meike Schmidt-Gleim, eds. 2014. The Meanings of Europe. London: Routledge.


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