It is one of the great riddles of the European Union. More and more policy areas come under the eu’s awning and yet without the construction of anything like a pan-European sovereign state. Even as national governments appear to cede ever more powers to eu institutions, they remain firmly in control of the eu juggernaut. For all the fanfare around the European Commission President’s annual State of the Union speech, the dominant agenda-setting institution is the European Council, composed of heads of state and government. New policies proposed by Commission officials originate in a complex circulation of policy papers managed by national representatives. The idea of tying the outcome of European parliamentary elections to the identity of a new College of Commissioners—in the hope of injecting something like partisan politics into the technocratic machinations of the eu ‘executive’—was batted away by national leaders. Member-states were too keen on preserving their right of nomination for the top eu jobs.

Articulated just over a decade ago, the theory of member-statehood offers an answer to this riddle.footnote1 Instead of thinking of European integration as a transfer of power from nation-states to a distant supranational entity based in Brussels, we should think of it as a transformation of those states, a shift from nation statehood to member-statehood. Member-states, not nation-states, form the substance of the eu. There has been an enormous expansion of the eu’s policy-making powers, from monetary policy through to judicial cooperation, but power-hungry Brussels-based bureaucrats are not the driving force behind it. It is a product of changes in European states themselves. The eu’s future is not likely to be full-blooded federalism or a return of nation-states. We will see deeper cooperation between national governments whose authority has become inseparable from the close ties which bind them to other eu member-states.

Nation-states and member-states are different forms of statehood. Legitimized through a vertical relationship between citizens and the state, the former evolved into a form of popular rule once national and popular sovereignty were fused together after the arrival of mass politics and universal suffrage. By contrast, member-states legitimize their authority through their participation in transnational regimes like the eu, justified both in terms of more efficient policy-making and through a critique of the stuntedness and conservatism of national identity and national borders. Whereas nation-states see their purpose as the pursuit of a national interest, member-states understand their interests primarily in terms of their place within a wider group of like-minded states.

Member-statehood has emerged unevenly. It is an abstraction, in the way that Europe’s nation-states were abstractions in the messy context of multi-national empires and religious schisms. The advent of the member-state has created a stark separation between the world of electoral politics, predominantly a national affair, and that of policy-making recast at the eu level. Politicians of member-states grapple with the resulting tension, torn between their loyalties to other national elites via the institutions of the eu and their continued obligation to represent their citizens in the traditional model of the national state. The Italian elections of September 2022 were a perfect illustration of this. They saw the arrival of an ostensibly radical-right government whose ability to translate its electoral victory into significant political change was highly constrained in almost all policy areas by virtue of Italy’s eu membership. Meloni’s government will be bound by the promises of the previous Draghi government to undertake significant societal reforms in exchange for almost €200 billion—from an accelerated energy transition to a radical shake-up of the Italian labour market and its productive apparatus. Meloni’s interest in culture wars, and her mediatized attacks on boats of migrants seeking to land on Italian shores, are the flipside of an otherwise completely constrained political environment.

What role does Brexit play in the theory of member-statehood? At first glance, it would seem to refute it, at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. As the revenge of the parochial nation-state on pan-European cosmopolitanism, as the revolt of the ‘somewheres’ against the rule of the ‘anywheres’, has Brexit not confirmed the commonly held view that the uk was only ever an outsider in the eu, present in body but not in mind?footnote2

This view is easy enough to rebut. The uk was in many ways an ‘awkward’ member, staying out of the Euro and Schengen and negotiating a complex mix of opt-outs and opt-ins, but it was still a leading member-state.footnote3 Its politicians and national officials were oriented towards—and heavily involved in—eu policy-making. Even in those areas where the uk had a formal opt-out, its officials were active behind the scenes.footnote4 Socially and politically, the commitment to the eu was firm. The British labour movement had long overcome its ideological hostility to European integration, accepting that the best defence of workers’ rights was not via the ballot box but the untouchable decisions of the eu’s Court of Justice. And the British capitalist class was one of the firmest defenders of the integrity of a fully fledged Single Market, seeing in it an opportunity to extend and deepen the uk’s growth model, including its outsized financial sector, reliance on private debt and large trade deficit.

It is certainly possible that whilst the uk has formally left the eu, it remains a member-state. This view would imply that the most distinguishing features of member-statehood are not to do with eu membership at all but point to something deeper, perhaps to the pathologies of the 21st-century post-democratic capitalist state.footnote5 In this case, eu membership is of little real consequence. We are talking about a far broader category of statehood, one that encompasses much of the West and is tied to the globalization of the post-Cold War era. Advanced capitalist states are experiencing a long-running crisis of political representation. Departing from the eu is no panacea. Moreover, the governance strategies deployed by national politicians in a post-Keynesian era have some uniformity to them, particularly in how market outcomes are protected from political meddling by tying the hands of national legislatures. This pathologization of political action was one of the principal intellectual outcomes of the crisis of the 1970s and has had widespread institutional consequences, not least in the quasi-universal embrace of independent central banking.footnote6