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The EU's Schizophrenic Constitutional Debate: Vertical and Horizontal Decentralism in European Governance


  • Stijn Smismans


Normative discourses on the European institutional set-up have paid attention to both vertical and horizontal decentralism. Decentralism refers to the respect of the autonomy of lower or smaller decision-making levels, the procedures privileging these decision-making levels (subsidiarity), and the involvement of these decision-making units in the case that policy-making is (partially) defined (and implemented) at a more central level. Vertical decentralism indicates these processes with regard to territorial decision-making levels and actors. Horizontal decentralism consists in these processes with regard to functional levels and actors, in particular civil society organisations and private organisations.This paper argues that the vertical and horizontal dimension of decentralism have always been dealt with separately within the European constitutional debate. For long, the debate has focused on issues of territorial representation, and as far as it has paid attention to decentralism this has been interpreted in vertical terms. It is only by the end of the 1990s that the normative discourse on the European construction starts also to pay attention to horizontal decentralism. However, normative arguments on vertical decentralism meet hardly ever with those on horizontal decentralism, as can still be illustrated by the current constitutional debate, with the Convention-Constitutional Treaty debate on the one hand, and the (follow-up to the) White Paper on European Governance on the other hand. Institutional interests may explain this separation of discourses. However, in practice European governance is characterised by interactions between public and private actors at multiple territorial levels. Therefore, the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of decentralism are intertwined. As a consequence, the normative debate on the future of the European polity should not deal with these issues in complete isolation from one another.

Suggested Citation

  • Stijn Smismans, 2004. "The EU's Schizophrenic Constitutional Debate: Vertical and Horizontal Decentralism in European Governance," EUI-RSCAS Working Papers 32, European University Institute (EUI), Robert Schuman Centre of Advanced Studies (RSCAS).
  • Handle: RePEc:erp:euirsc:p0147

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    governance; constitution building; decentralisation;

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