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George Tsebelis - Political Institutions of the EU

Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 4 pm
Conversations on Europe

"Political Institutions of the EU," with George Tsebelis, Anatol Rapoport Collegiate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan.

Sponsored by the Center for European Studies-European Union Center.


After the referendums in France and the Netherlands the European Union was in disarray. However, political elites in all countries were insisting in the adoption of the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, which in turn was a slight modification of the text adopted in the European Convention. The solution was found in the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) of Brussels in 2007, where the substance of the Treaty was adopted, and symbolic details (flag, anthem) were dropped out. Professor Tsebelis will discuss the impact of the institutions adopted in the Convention, and argue that these institutions would help political decision-making in the EU; and explain how such significant results became possible (because of the important role of the Presidium in terms of agenda setting). Finally he will argue, that the text of the Constitution became a focal point for all negotiating governments. This is why elites came back to it despite the public disapproval of the referendums.

George Tsebelis curriculum vitae and web resources

Listen to the lecture here

Discussion Summary

Professor Tsebelis' talk dealt with the development and impact of the Constitution for Europe, a document that, albeit nominally dead, provided the basis for the Treaty of Lisbon, thus informing the debate on the future of the European Union to this day. By relying on formal analysis based on set theory, Tsebelis showed first of all that the institutional innovations proposed by the Constitution would make the decisional process of the EU more efficient. This new level of efficiency, however, will be reached at the expense of the powers of the European Parliament, with the consequence of increasing the democratic deficit. This controversial result was achieved largely through the agenda setting abilities of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who presided over the Convention. Tsebelis gave a fascinating series of examples of how Giscard was able to manipulate the process, steering the results of the debate as close to his preconceived goals as possible, without however crossing the boundaries of what was acceptable to all debating parties. The fact that the final result, however skewed, was located in an extremely small area of consensus (which Tsebelis illustrated graphically) explains why the leaders of all the EU countries held on to the institutional proposals of the Constitution in the wake of the French and Dutch rejections in the 2005 referenda, and why they keep pushing for the same solutions after the Irish rejected the Treaty of Lisbon in another referendum earlier this year. The talk and the ensuing discussion demonstrated the analytical power of formal analysis, when it is coupled with an ethnographic attention to the actors' motives. Professor Tsebelis was extremely successful in combining different methodologies, thereby sketching a remarkably clear (albeit somewhat sobering) picture of crucial recent developments in the process of European integration.

Summary prepared by Dario Gaggio, director of the Center for European Studies-European Union Center