This is a very British book, but with a Brussels perspective on European integration, though this may sound like a contradiction. Inspired by the allegedly ‘awkward’ nature of the United Kingdom's relationship with the EU—including its nearing exit—the editors wish to find out if there are other ‘awkward’ partners in the European integration process. Malin Stegmann McCallion and Alex Brianson assert that the UK cannot be the only awkward pupil in the class and have selected the Nordic countries as candidates. ‘Awkward’ is understood as being ‘difficult to deal with’ (p. 2) for the other participants in a regional integration process, because the awkward partners ‘routinely stay outside the mainstream in their particular regions’ (p. 2), typically with opt-outs (p. 131). However, ‘such states are not automatically perceived as “awkward” by their partners’ (p. 2). In other words, the definition is not about partners' perceptions, but about the editors' own classification. For explanatory purposes, a number of independent variables in relation to the dependent variable of awkwardness are stipulated—for instance, a ‘relationship with [an] extra-regional security guarantor’ (the United States) or policy preferences (p. 4, table 1.1). However, the schema lacks the more interesting and less self-evident factor of historical experience—including past geopolitics. Judged from the ensuing individual chapters and previous studies, this is actually the most important explanatory factor in relation to a country's integration profile. Furthermore, the added value of classifying states as awkward or the opposite is doubtful. No theory exists that connects awkwardness to other properties and we already have concepts in the literature (like ‘Eurocautiousness’, ‘Euroscepticism’ or Toivo Miljan's ‘reluctant Europeans’) to describe the Nordic states—concepts that are less normative (‘awkward’ is obviously a negatively loaded term as in ‘awkward behaviour’ or an ‘awkward situation’). To discuss the purported awkwardness of the Nordic states, this edited volume includes chapters on each of the five Nordic countries and their national positions on European integration. Each of these chapters starts with a historical perspective—illustrating the countries' widely different reasons for entering into the integration process. Brianson sums up contributors' results by asserting that ‘our book demonstrates conclusively that the concept of awkwardness has useful applications in the context of European integration that go beyond the obvious case of the UK. In fact, each of the five states studied here is an awkward partner for … the regional integration institutions and processes of Europe’ (p. 130). This is a gross overstatement of what is concluded in the individual chapters. For instance, Finland is correctly analysed as being a paragon of virtue in the EU, with a few minor exceptions. Moreover, in the Swedish case, Stegmann McCallion finds that ‘the awkwardness label sits somewhat uncomfortably’ (p. 59) and is explicit in her doubt about its applicability. In fact, there is nothing awkward about the Nordic states' approach to European integration. They had developed welfare states and a mutual security community on their own long before the European Community was invented. Unlike the south Europeans liberated from dictatorships or east Europeans liberated from communism, the Nordics did not need ‘salvation’—they could adopt a cautious attitude by weighing expected costs and benefits, which had a somewhat different outcome in each of the five countries: Finland chose to be a member without opt-outs; Sweden and, notably, Denmark ended up with various opt-outs; and Norway and Iceland stayed outside, although with participation in the internal market and the Schengen Agreement. However, their rationalistic attitudes were the same; none of them would risk jeopardizing past accomplishments. There is nothing awkward about this, unless one takes a strongly normative Brussels perspective—that complete European integration is somehow a teleological end-state. To the editors' apparent surprise, therefore, these states are seldom seen as ‘awkward’ by their partners and are not being punished for their behaviour. By contrast, the integration approach of the Visegrád states, in particular Poland and Hungary, does seem to qualify as ‘awkward’. Despite their declared ‘illiberalism’, as well as their actual deeds opposing the value base of the whole EU project, they still do not have the slightest intention of leaving. That, indeed, is awkward. These states may prove fruitful future case-studies for the analytical frame at stake. However, in a Nordic context, it constitutes a straitjacket, which the book will be remembered for, but which to some extent overshadows the fine comparative content of the individual chapters. The concept's analytical value is questionable, although it will surely be a good sell in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, and contrary to the expectations of some, the Nordic countries will not follow in British footsteps. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. 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International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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