Revisionism as a logic of institutional change

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Revisionism as a logic of institutional change
Jonathan White*
How does a treatybased organisation account for its shifts in policy and procedure? With the European Union's
history in focus, the paper observes a pattern of evolution by which departures from existing practice are justified
as moves to better honour commitments already held. This logic of changeasfidelity has long been the usual way
of doing transnational politics in postwar Europe. The concept of revisionism, borrowed from the study of
innovation in purposive organisations more generally, elucidates its place in the early European Community.
The paper goes on to examine how more recent developments, especially visible in the Euro crisis, challenge this
logic of change and threaten to displace it. It concludes by discussing what this implies for the political nature of
the EU, and whether the revival of the revisionist method is plausible or desirable.
The European Union is an expression of the fundamental transformation of European states since the Second World
War. It is the sum of numerous farreaching changes in the way decisions are made and the kinds of policy they give
rise to. Yet the transformative character of European integration is considerably less visible in the design and justifi-
cation of particular steps. If one looks at how innovations and reorientations have tended to be pursued, more often
one sees the accent on continuity. One of the recurring features of Europe's political transformation for much of the
Union's history has been the construal of change not as significant departure, but as a way to better honour commit-
ments already held.
Change in the name of fidelity: this, I suggest, has long been a central selfimage of the EU as an evolving associ-
ation. As the first sections of the paper argue, the practices involved in honouring the principle of fidelity are well
captured with the concept of revisionism, a distinct mode of political change typically associated with purposive
organisations. The centrality of revisionism to the EU corresponds to how the latter was long seen as just such an
organisation, defined by the pursuit of shared ends. Further, the privileged place given to law in building the EU,
and the detachment of much of its decision making from direct forms of popular influence, have reinforced the
propensity to pursue change in the name of fidelity.
Tendencies arising in later phases of the EU's development have increasingly challenged this selfimage. In the
convulsions of the euro crisis, the principle of fidelity came under severe strain. More visibly than usual, measures
were taken that resisted construal as mere refinements of the means by which existing commitments are honoured.
One saw the establishment of new institutions and policies not credibly traceable to commitments already held. Lip
service was still paid to the logic of fidelity, but in an increasingly convoluted fashion; moreover, it sat awkwardly with
London School of Economics
Drafts of this work were presented at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the GoetheUniversität Frankfurt, the University of Oslo, and
at a workshop in Bilbao. In addition to participants at each, I especially thank Dimitrios Efthymiou, Christian Joerges, Kalypso
Nicolaïdis and Lea Ypi for their comments.
DOI: 10.1111/eulj.12233
406 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Eur Law J. 2017;

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