Luk Van Langenhove is director of the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU- CRIS) in Bruges. He teaches at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and the College of Europe and also holds an adjunct professorship at Murdoch University in Perth.
“All too often, the EU is pictured as a ‘model’ for other integration schemes. This gives the impression that the road taken by European integration is the only road possible….” “The study of regional integration should… pay more attention to ‘integration-speak,’ or the storylines about regional integration that are developed in conversations between different actors…” “The advice is: bring in geography! Not tak- ing this into account leads to distorted com- parisons…”
The academic study of regional integration is scattered amongst different disciplines. Political scientists have a longstanding interest in regional integration but historians, economists, lawyers, and international relations scholars have been studying regional integration as well. Often a comparative perspective is taken. Hence the development of “Comparative Regional Integration Studies” as an institutionalized academic activity aimed at performing scientifically sound comparisons of regional integration processes across the globe and across time. But as Alberta Sbragia rightly noted, the study of comparative regionalism is ill-defined and “its boundaries are certainly permeable.” There is indeed a lot of confusion about the study-object of the field. Take for instance Ernst Haas’s classic definition of regional integration: “the study of regional integration is concerned with explaining how and why states cease to be wholly sovereign, how and why they voluntarily mingle, merge, and mix with their neighbours so as to lose the factual attributes of sovereignty while acquiring new techniques for resolving conflict between themselves.” Here the emphasis is on losing sovereignty. But is this the case for all forms of regional integration? What if the “integration” is organized on a purely inter-governmental basis? Furthermore, both the concepts of “integration” and “region” are problematic. Integration has a normative connotation as it is often implicitly regarded as a positive development (in contrast to the negative connotation of disintegration) and region is a polysemous concept that can refer to supranational, subnational, or cross-border areas. It is therefore not always clear what the unit or object of comparison is. And on top of that, regional integration in Europe seems to obscure the field as scholars disagree on what place the EU should take in comparative regional integration studies. In recent years, many authors have pointed to these conceptual and other methodological problems. This article argues that comparing different forms of regional integration is scientifically feasible, but only if a social constructivist point of view is taken. Only in this way can a general theory be developed that allows understanding of the diversity of integration processes. It also claims that it is policy-relevant to compare the European integration experiences with regional integration in the rest of the world… (purchase article…)