Polycentricity in the EU

The European Union Policy Paper Series (the-enpi.org)

Polycentricity in the European Union,

Author: Teodor Kalpakchiev (2017)


This paper attempts to explain the existing and potential sub-groupings within the European Union. They can inform policy-makers or practitioners on the cooperability among Member States.

North versus South

The North has for long seen itself as more disciplined, socially democratic and committed. In contrast to it, the historically embedded South is much more leisure oriented, works excessive hours and is often considered as disorganized. Thus, the dilemma budgetary austerity versus collective well-being transposes into friction between the neo-Roman and the barbaric group of peoples inside the European Union. Even if Britain decides to leave, the Scottish and Irish, combined with their Nordic counterparts can be considered the wealthier and institutionally better organized group that can serve as an example to the South. Crucial element for their success is the domestic resource mobilization, e.g. the taxation of good and services. Bearing in mind that the EU‘s legitimacy depends on the happiness, wellbeing and activity of its citizens, the transition from taxing labour to taxing resource usage is the most viable opportunity with this regard.

  • North: Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands
  • South: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, France

East versus West

Traditionally, the EU has been based on the values of the Western societies – economic and personal freedom, democracy and traditions in statehood. To the contrary, the East has experienced a number of cataclysms that have often deprived its citizens to ponder over and develop the idea of statehood. Hence, freedom is often substituted with centralization and dominance over the weak, while democracy is often crippled through the problematic separation of the traditional state powers (legislative, normative, judicial), as well as due to their feigned ties with entrepreneurs from the communist transition and servile media. While problems are manifold, discussion remains vital, as it is the only way to channel people’s preferences. It goes without saying that Berlin has positioned itself as the balancer between the EU and the countries from the big-bang enlargement. However, many of the policies triggered by it are legitimate only domestically.

Core versus Periphery

A continuation of the East-West divide, the core versus periphery dichotomy can be interpreted in two distinctive ways. One of them is that the six founding member states of the EU continue to consider the newcomers as slightly inferior, thus impeding the process of socialization, exchange of best practices, learning about the otherness of the others, etc. While this logic applies to the national labour markets, the Brussels bubble is even less welcoming to the newcomers. Each of the Big Bang Enlargement countries has discovered its most logical partners either in the North led by Germany or the South led in competition by France, Italy and Spain.

Spatial and Territorial Differentiation

As Wegener suggests based on his estimation of size, location and connectivity Slovenia, Ireland, Poland  and  Denmark have the best distribution of their population over their territory[1] (see also the caption below). While this seems relatively unimportant, for the EU has limited territory and resources, the equitable distribution of the population over the natural endowments ensures that there are no regions that remain excluded by EU’s cohesion and regional development policies. Decentralization could allow an easier channelling of democratic will, improvements in special connectivity among cities, appearance of social, telecommunications, institutional and economic infrastructure, resp. connectivity. As evident from Figure 8, we see an inherent proportionality between the size of sub-state regions and their polycentricity. In other words, smaller regions tend to have better distribution of people in cities and larger ones tend to centralize their population in a single city (e.g. the capital). This can only suggest that countries should be regionalized further.

Political vs. Geographical

Additionally, one should consider that political groupings and the perception of socio-political proximity can be based on shared historical memory, but also on geographical endowments that have resulted in the creation of macro-strategies for development. Such are for example the Danube Macro Region strategy[2] that encompasses all the countries that share borders with the Danube River, the Baltic Region Strategy[3], as well as the Black Sea Strategy[4] that follow the same logic, but apply it onto the countries surrounding a seawater basin.

Another geographical consideration would be that fact that oftentimes the agency method for policy implementation and the rotating presidency of the Council are considered as ways to decentralize the power away from Brussels and back to the EU Capitals. Yet, bearing in mind that Brussels was chosen for a quasi-capital of a post-sovereign establishment due to its institutional structure and history, the current state of the Union puts countries to the East (such as Bulgaria, Greece and Finland) in the natural periphery of the Union. Geographically speaking, with the Big Bang enlargement, the political centre of gravity has moved eastwards. Nevertheless, this has not resulted in any form of geographical adjustment. This leads us to the logic that the EU must respond institutionally to the alteration of its centre of gravity. Appropriate countries for that purpose could be Switzerland, Austria, Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary, since they correspond better to the shifting centre of political gravity.

Slavic Union vs. the West

While the pan-Slavic ideology was initially propagated by Russia as a mean towards reversing the trajectory of geopolitical affiliation, it has been since adopted by a number of countries, most notably Poland and Serbia. They see wider Eastern Europe (e.g. countries from the Big Bang enlargement and the Eastern Partnership of the European Union) as a possible balancing factor to the core member states. Although not completely relevant, the Visegrad Four (V4) group gives a flavour of the competition over policy ownership within the EU that stems from such a perspective.

Enhanced cooperation

The Lisbon Treaty includes provisions on the so-called enhanced cooperation that stipulates that enhanced cooperation may be established in lieu of achieving an aim to further the objectives of the Union, protect its interests and reinforce its integration process. It is to be adopted in the Council in accordance with the procedure laid down in TFEU, Article 329, with only members participating having the right to deliberate on a proposal (TEU, Art.20).  It needs to conform with and not undermine the internal market or economic, social and territorial cohesion (TFEU, Art. 326) and not impede the obligations of other member states (TFEU, Art. 327). It promotes inclusivity (TFEU, Art. 328) and cannot happen within areas of exclusive competence to EU (see TFEU Art. 3: customs union, the establishing of the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market, monetary policy for the member states whose currency is the euro, conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy, common commercial policy, concluding international agreements) and the common foreign and security policy. It is decided on unanimously (TFEU, Art. 330). Procedural explanations are included in Art. 331-334. Participating member states must be equal or above ¼ of the total number of MS.

Fiscal considerations

Some regional blocks such as the V4 already have schemes promoting the further integration of their participants, such as needs-based research and project grants. On the institutional side, beyond proposals for a Eurozone budget and an Eurozone parliament, it might result in new sub-groups of partners in the actual EP, problems with coordinating finance and fiscal affairs, etc. One must not forget that the EU budget might need a rebuff, which could be gathered either from increased domestic resource mobilization on peer-to-peer transactions and digitalization of tax collection, or transitioning towards an external EU eco-tax in the form of trade barrier for imports of goods that are not compliant with EU’s sustainability requirements.  

[1] Polycentric Europe: more Efficient, 

more Equitable and more Sustainable?

Michael Wegener, http://www.spiekermann-wegener.de/pub/pdf/MW_IRPET_161113.pdf , p.7

[2] http://www.danube-region.eu/

[3] http://www.balticsea-region-strategy.eu/

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/maritimeaffairs/policy/sea_basins/black_sea_en

To Cite:

Teodor Kalpakchiev, 2017, Polycentricity in the EU,

The European Union Policy Paper Series (the-enpi.org)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s