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Towards an European Research infrastructure on Integration Policy?

Vers une structure de recherche européenne sur la politique d’intégration ?

p. 201-206

Texte intégral

1These days the media are overflowing with news generated by the outcome of the British referendum on EU membership. A trouble-some relationship will come to an end. Just how troublesome remains hidden in the archives for the time being. After all, diplomacy thrives on confidentiality. It appears that the British voters did not have a full picture of what their respective governments had wanted to achieve in the EU membership. What did London achieve over time-and what not? Apart from the obvious, the popular vote in the United Kingdom also brought to light the surprising absence of historical reference to past debate among governments and their representatives. The debate largely overlooked the fact that the EU, as an intergovernmental institution of sovereign nations, has been shaped by negotiated compromises. The EU exists as the result of these exchanges between national governments, each fulfilling their constitutional duty to further the national interest. The lack of reference to the very process that made ‘Brussels’ has been surprising. How and why is it that EU policies and decisions were shaped by (often complex) compromises, and why have they received so little attention?

2In the public discussions on the EU, the lack of reference to the instrumental processes of the cooperative European project is disconcerting. Here lies a real task for historians: to educate teachers, students, journalists, politicians, diplomats, policy-makers and ordinary citizens on how European policies have been defined by the common interests of parties around the table, each promoting their own national points of view to the best of their abilities. Contrary to the cries heard in the run-up to the British referendum, there never was such a thing as ‘them’ (meaning ‘Brussels’) against ‘us’ (meaning national citizens). It is bewildering that we have not heard this more from the participants in the public debate.

3Indeed, we know surprisingly little about the origins of points of view at the level of participating governments. Documents on what each of the parties wanted in policy terms, in advance of a negotiation, are often not readily available. This makes it difficult to develop a profound understanding of the outcome of European processes.

4One of the problems in the study of European integration has been the dispersion of sources from which to reconstruct this diverging process. Such sources include historic archives at the level of the various governments involved, archives at the European central level, and a great number of actors scattered across the continent. Yet these dispersed sources are vital to explaining both the origins and the exchanges of ideas and interests that took place. They are crucial to developing a real understanding of the processes at hand.

5Current research on the genesis of the European Union is in need of instruments for an enhanced analysis that will provide answers to questions on the transnational development of policy making, on networks between actors, and on the essence of the evolution of the European institutions as such: were they really driven by ideological, economic and political arguments, or did other factors come into play as well, such as legal and social objectives, or the development of common standards? Answers to such questions can thus far only be provided on the basis of individual country studies, not for the Union as a whole. Citizens and researchers are easily dwarfed by the size and the complexities of the European endeavour. But they do not need to remain so. With the aid of modem technology, it is possible to obtain insight into, and first-hand knowledge of, the inside of decision making processes.

6This is why the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, part of the Netherlands’ Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, has proposed a unifying European online project to gather archival material from various nations to set up a European e- infrastructure. This initiative aims to uncover and assemble source material that resides in difficult-to-access archives that require time, travel and money to study.

Preliminary work

7To investigate the feasibility of such a project and make some head-way on the learning curve’ for the endeavour, discussions were started with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005, in the wake of the outcome of the Dutch popular vote on a European Constitution. The idea was to initiate a sizeable research project for the digital domain that would bring out why and how the Netherlands cooperated in the integration process. The results have been online since September 20141.

8The project was based on the publication of sources. Rather than a historical, written reconstruction, the choice was made to provide actual archival documents for the Dutch project. After all, sources originated at the time and reflect contemporary thinking. Because of this, they are tenable over longer periods and can be used again and again to test new approaches to the reconstruction and understanding of the past.

9In the EU, the standard period after which archives of public bodies are opened to the public is 30 years. But if access is generally possible after this period, this does not imply that findings will be similar. Varying archival traditions in different countries have left significant marks on what the archives have selected for keeping: while some countries focus on the archiving of policy decisions, others have traditions that come from a governance perspective. Such archives contain a much broader selection of documents. The proposed online project will bring these together for the benefit of research and understanding. It is envisaged to combine this online infrastructure with advanced options for search and analysis. Because of its digital presentation, the research infrastructure would create possibilities for users to define their own individual search criteria for topics, people, geographies, time frames, et cetera, and combinations of these.


10The proposed infrastructure will consist of a historic selection of digitized, significant policy documents from national and international archival collections, brought together by an international team that combines the expertise of researchers, archivists and technologists. These documents will cover national policy making, bilateral and multilateral exchanges, contacts with the European Commission, and negotiations at the level of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) and in the Council of Ministers.

11The transnational infrastructure will be a platform for data mining of archival documents on international relations across languages. This represents a major innovation that will open up numerous new areas and approaches to research. It will offer connections between information on the basis of metadata, and by enabling full-text search based on data mining technology. The project will be more than the world’s largest database of EU integration documents; it will be the most advanced platform for analysis of these data. It will enable researchers world-wide to study and integrate documents from different countries, in different languages, using both traditional and computer-supported heuristic methods. It will be the first instrument to unite national policy-making processes in a transnational environment that will enable enhanced understanding of one of the key developments in postwar European history. The availability of documents in open access will make it possible to use them immediately in connection with the drafting of papers, articles, etc. It will offer an important new tool not just to the academic community, but to the European citizen as well. The availability of first-hand sources will also give non-specialized stakeholders from all over the world access to precious information on the history of European integration, on the genesis and workings of European institutions, on the development of their policies, and on the relationship between national authorities and EC/EU bodies.

12The envisaged infrastructure will provide transparency regarding the processes of policy making that has implications beyond academic research. It is intended as a starting point for a sustainable pan-European facility, a lasting framework for transnational cooperation in opening up government documents. It will enhance the transparency of the intergovernmental process of European integration, which is relevant both to the research community and to the European citizen. The project will entail more than digitizing documents and making them available online. Because of the sheer volume of the accumulated documentation, the project will need to be selective. It therefore identifies key documents from national and European policy-making files. The researcher will of course benefit from this initiative, but also the informed citizen-and the archives from which the documents originate. By providing each document presented in the infrastructure with a clear link to the original archival context from which it originates, archives can look forward to more visitors/ users, seeking to know elements of the story that are not represented online.

13Example of a document, taken from the Archives Diplomatiques in La Courneuve: a telegram from Jean-Paul Garnier, dated 4 June 1955. Garnier was France’s ambassador to The Hague from September 1949 to September 1955.

14The open access structure, and the envisaged visitor-friendly way the project’s Virtual Research Environment will be set up, will be of considerable importance. In an era of integration fatigue, widespread Euroscepticism and disenchantment, understanding the motivations, values and principles that led European nations to embark on and carry out the integration process is of utmost importance.

15In the proposed digital environment one cannot only find out when new topics in integration policy emerged, but it will be much easier to develop an understanding of the governance processes involved, trace who was involved in various aspects of policy making, and form a picture of the backgrounds of policy makers–civil servants for the most part. By combining biographical data stored in the project it will be possible to obtain insight into the dynamics of actors in this process: their age, training, gender, careers etc. It will be possible to answer such questions as do we find the same people involved in these other areas of integration policy?; did civil servants specialize in certain topics?; did they take a lead in policy formulation?; with whom were they in contact in their partner countries?; can we distinguish networks between people-and what their impact was (over time)?

16In the envisaged European project, such (national) findings could be compared to those in other nations, and might bring interesting new insights into the political, bureaucratic, administrative and civil service cultures – and of their effects on foreign policy.

17It will also be possible to track differences in the style and culture of policy making in various countries, and ask whether this had an effect on policy as such. The comparative transnational approach will also throw light on questions such as: who sets the agenda for certain discussions within European cooperation, and how do such discussions reflect national interests? Since all data are instantly available, developing such notions will be far easier than in traditional research.


18To make a start with the envisaged European Research Infrastructure on Integration Policy, a consortium of interested parties from 10 countries, plus one of the institutions at the European level, has applied in 2016 for a subsidy from the European Commission under the COST program: Cooperation in Science and Technology2. The road ahead appears, however, to be paved with obstacles. An initial version of the proposal was not selected for funding because of imperfections; an improved version met with administrative obstacles. Nevertheless, if successful the project will serve as a starting point for a sustainable pan-European open access facility, a lasting framework for transnational cooperation in document publishing that can be expanded in the years to come.

19When operational, ERIPO hopes to enhance the transparency of the intergovernmental process of European integration, relevant to the research community and to the European citizen. It will offer the European citizen direct, open access to prime documentation that will shed light on the process of policy making, showing how and why diverse national interests were reconciled into negotiated European policy solutions, compromises and structures. Thus ERIPO seeks to contribute to narrowing the gap between ‘Brussels’ and the European citizen.

Notes de bas de page

1 http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/europeseintegratie/index_html_en.

2 These institutions are: Huygens / Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Historical Archives of the European Union at the European University Institute, the French Archives Diplomatiques, the Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe (CVCE) in Luxembourg, the Department of Political Science, Law and International Studies of the University of Padua, the German Institut für Zeitgeschichte, the Belgian Royal Historical Commission, the archives of the Belgian and Italian Foreign Affairs Ministries, and the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Irish Academy, and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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