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How does the European Union deal with distinctiveness?

On 31 January 2024, Alex Schilin defended his dissertation ‘United in Distinctiveness: The Institutionalisation of Differentiated Integration in Economic and Monetary Union during the Sovereign Debt Crisis.’ What motivated him to research this specific topic, and how did he tackle this project? And what are his plans for the future?

Differentiated forms of policy participation in the EU

For his dissertation, Schilin researched the integration of EU member states in Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and how different forms of integration were institutionalised during the sovereign debt crisis. He focussed on whether and how ‘differentiated integration’ became embedded in structures, processes and practices of EMU governance.

Differentiated integration is the phenomenon in which some member states abstain from certain EU policies while others further engage and adopt them. ‘While the EU often highlights its unity,’ Schilin says, ‘multiple member states do not participate to the same degree in projects and policies of EU integration. In some cases, countries have secured exceptions, allowing them to opt out of EU policies.’ One of the most known examples is Denmark, which kept its national currency. In others, countries are excluded because they do not fulfil administrative or economic requirements. According to Schilin, the various forms of differentiated integration in the EU become especially evident in EMU. It was established to integrate EU member states into a collective monetary policy with a single currency. Therefore, in principle, all member states are obliged to adopt the euro. Still, until today, only 20 out of 27 member states have fulfilled this obligation.

Schilin: ‘In my dissertation, I studied whether and if so, how and with what implications differentiated integration has manifested itself in EMU governance and reform processes during the sovereign debt crisis.’ Both in public and scientific debates, the sovereign debt crisis is often labelled as the euro crisis, which took place from 2009 until 2015. ‘Indeed, the majority of reforms resulting from this period apply to those EU member states that share the single currency’

European flags EU

How the EU dealt with distinctiveness in organisations, norms and ideas

In his dissertation, Schilin argues that ‘the institutionalisation of differentiated integration’ manifested itself in organisations, norms and ideas. He demonstrates that the distinction between insiders and outsiders of the euro area shaped not only EMU reforms but also the interaction between and the minds of government representatives.

Schilin explains: ‘The Eurogroup and Eurogroup Working Group (EWG) constituted one important part of my research. I found that it was no coincidence that these formats became so important during the sovereign debt crisis. In fact, the euro area insiders transformed the Eurogroup and EWG into viable bodies of euro area governance equipped with clear competences, a specific institutional culture and large administrative resources. With these strong organisations at their disposal, they could design and implement separate policies independent of the classic EU institutions (ECOFIN Council or European Parliament).’

Yet, Schilin aimed to go beyond this organisational aspect, studying the overarching relevance of differentiated integration in EMU governance during the sovereign debt crisis. Therefore, Schilin also considered norms. He found that representatives from euro area insiders adopted their own norms, which focussed on behaving cooperatively and striving to facilitate consensus through constructive contributions rather than insisting on national interests. ‘Furthermore, I found that differentiated integration functioned as an idea contributing to policymakers’ perception of the sovereign debt crisis as endogenous to the currency area. It was for this reason that most reforms applied only to euro area insiders even though the corresponding problems (e.g. banking regulation) were relevant to all EU member states.'

How to govern a phenomenon that is not supposed to exist

What was it that made Schilin so curious about this project? Firstly, Schilin states: ‘Differentiated integration is still a taboo in the EU.’ It was designed as a temporal measure, but it became a significant and permanent characteristic of the EU. ‘Thus,’ Schilin says, ‘the fascinating question arises: How do EU member states govern a phenomenon that is not supposed to exist?’

'Differentiated integration is still a taboo in the EU.'

‘The sovereign debt crisis is a period during which this question became particularly relevant. One group among the EU member states faced an existential crisis while the other didn’t. How did the system of the EU, which is so much designed towards unity, cope with the new focus on the distinction between euro insiders and outsiders? What institutions were introduced to allow the euro insiders to address their problems? What is the impact of euro-specific institutions and do they threaten the unity among EU member states on a long-term basis? I was very curious about studying these exciting questions.’

And what makes this research unique? Schilin answers: ‘While we know a lot about explanations or normative implications, we have hardly any studies focusing on how differences between EU member states are governed. Building on my research, colleagues can study how the distinction between insiders and outsiders is recognised in other EU policy areas. Here, they can look not only at organisations but also study more subtle institutions such as norms or ideas.’

Profile picture Alex Schilin
Political scientist Alex Schilin

Being more than just a researcher

What else has Schilin learned during your PhD project? He answers that ‘the most important lesson I have learned is that we should be more relaxed about doing a PhD, considering it a normal job as any else. In academia, we tend to identify ourselves with our research very strongly. Particularly at the start of my PhD, I defined myself mainly as a researcher, letting this part overshadow other parts of my identity.

While this strong connection helped me to stay motivated and enthusiastic about my research project, I also noticed that it has significant downsides. Often, I could not stop thinking about my research, having new thoughts at any time, including nights and weekends. Furthermore, I lost resilience as the focus on research made it more difficult to deal with setbacks. Here, it was important to have friends and, especially, my partner, who reminded me that I am so much more than just a researcher. Reminding myself of the multidimensionality of my identity has made me a much more resilient person.’

And what are Schilin’s plans for after the PhD? He answers that he will ‘continue towards new adventures both in research and privately. Currently, I am preparing a proposal for a postdoc project about the rise of right-wing populist governments in the EU and its institutional implications. I plan to finalise the research proposal in the coming weeks. In parallel, I am searching for an institution that can host me as a researcher applying for research fellowships, postdoc programmes and grants.’

‘Privately, I am preparing for a very special arrival. In March, my partner and I will welcome our first child. We are very excited and can hardly wait to accompany our son in growing up and exploring the world! Thus, while the adventure of my PhD comes to an end, new ones already lie ahead.’

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