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Neofunctionalism is a theory of regional integration, building on the work of Ernst B. Haas, an American political scientist. Jean Monnet's approach to European integration, which aimed at integrating individual sectors in hopes of achieving spill-over effects to further the process of integration, is said to have followed the neofunctional school's tack. Haas later declared the theory of neofunctionalism obsolete, after the process of European integration started stalling in the 1960s, when Charles de Gaulle's "empty chair" politics paralyzed the institutions of the European Coal and Steel Community, European Economic Community, and European Atomic Energy Community. Neofunctionalism has also been called too eurocentric and hence incapable of describing the process of integration in general.

Unlike previous theories of integration, neofunctionalism was non-normative and tried to describe and explain the process of regional integration based on empirical data. Integration was regarded as an inevitable process, rather than a desirable state of affairs that could be introduced by the political or technocratic elites of the involved states' societies. Its strength however was also its weakness: While it understood that regional integration is only feasible as an incremental process, its conception of integration as a linear process made the explanation of setbacks impossible.

Neofunctionalism holds that functional spill-over occurs from the cooperation and social-integration of technocrats into increasingly political realms.

Neofunctionalism nonetheless remains an important theory in the study of international relations. Neofunctionalism is often contrasted with intergovernmentalism.

Neofunctionalism and the European Union

Neofunctionalism argues that the supranational institutions of the European Union themselves have been a driving force behind European integration; reinterpreting agreed results from Intergovernmental Conferences in order to expand the mandate of EU legislation into new and more diverse areas. The theory of neofunctionalism is felt by some to be important as it may explain much of the thinking behind the early proponents of the European Union, such as Jean Monnet, who saw increased European integration as the most important precursor to a peaceful Europe.

Neofunctionalism assumes a decline in importance of nationalism and the nation-state; it sees the executive power and interest groups within states to be pursuing a welfarist objective which is best satisfied by integration of EU states. The thinking behind the neofunctionalist theory can be best described by considering the three mechanisms which neofunctionalists see as key to driving the process of integration forwards. These are positive spillover, the transfer of domestic allegiances and technocratic automaticity:

  • Positive spillover effect is the concept that integration between states in one economic sector will quickly create strong incentives for integration in further sectors; in order to fully capture the benefits of integration in the original sector.
  • The mechanism of a transfer in domestic allegiances can be best understood by first noting that an important assumption within neofunctionalist thinking is of a pluralistic society within the relevant nation states. Neofunctionalists claim that, as the process of integration gathers pace, interest groups and associations within the pluralistic societies of the individual nation states will transfer their allegiance away from national institutions towards the supranational European institutions. They will do this because they will, in theory, come to realise that these newly formed institutions are a better conduit through which to pursue their material interests than the pre-existing national institutions.
  • Finally, technocratic automaticity describes the way in which, as integration hastens, the supranational institutions set up to oversee that integration process will themselves take the lead in sponsoring further integration as they become more powerful and more autonomous of the member states.

Intergovernmentalism is an alternative theory of political integration, where power in international organizations is possessed by the member-states and decisions are made by unanimity. Independent appointees of the governments or elected representatives have solely advisory or implementational functions. Intergovernmentalism is used by most international organizations today. An alternative method of decision-making in international organizations is supranationalism.

Intergovernmentalism is also a theory on European integration which rejects the idea of neofunctionalism. The theory, initially proposed by Stanley Hoffmann and refined by Andrew Moravcsik suggests that governments control the level and speed of European integration. Any increase in power at supranational level, he argues, results from a direct decision by governments. He believed that integration, driven by national governments, was often based on the domestic political and economic issues of the day. The theory rejects the concept of the spill over effect that neofunctionalism proposes. He also rejects the idea that supranational organisations are on an equal level (in terms of political influence) as national governments.


  • Thomas Conzelmann: Neofunktionalismus in: Siegfried Schiedler/Manuela Spindler (Hrsg.) Theorien der Internationalen Beziehungen, Opladen 2003, S.141-161 (German)
  • Ernst B Haas: The Uniting of Europe, Stanford 1958
  • Ben Rosamond: Theories of European Integration (Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, 2000)

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