European co-operation has already produced a dense institutional order-a quasi-federal polity and a system of governance based on constitution-like treaties (Stone Sweet & Sandholtz 1998:1).22 Yet, many recent integration initiatives have been initiated outside the EU institutions, and the European polity is still in flux. The EU is an unsettled political order in terms of geographical reach, functional scope and institutional balance. The Union simultaneously faces questions such as: who is going to belong to the political community and where should its external borders be drawn? What should the shared agenda, purposes and projects be? How are collective issues to be dealt with, and in terms of which common institutions and principles? How are such choices to be justified and legitimised?
Reorganising political power in Europe involves a delicate re-balancing between levels of governance and institutions. The EU has gone through a variety of stages (Schuppert 1995), but the preconditions for a European federation are not well understood. The long-term history of government may also indicate that there is no such thing as an end-state, but a succession of forms of government instead (Finer 1997). Fischer's speech can be seen as an attempt to provide leadership and a vision of a new political order in Europe in a period of uncertainty and ambiguity. He proposes further political integration, but he is also setting a limit for integration, short of a United States of Europe. Will, then, the majority of the Member States make the leap into full integration? Will an avant-garde emerge? Will the core emerge within or outside the framework provided by the treaties? Will there be destructive conflicts over further integration?
The main argument of this paper is that what looks utopian for political pawns and engineers, may be a little less so for patient political gardeners. In particular, patient gardeners may turn utopias into visions, and give a consistent and desired direction to European developments if they understand the dynamics of political institutions and identities well. In other words, the abilities of institutions to adapt spontaneously to major changes in their environments, the abilities of environments to eliminate non-adaptive institutions, and the latitude of purposeful institutional reform.
One key aspect to understand comprehensive institutional change is to develop a better comprehension of how existing institutional characteristics and histories affect institutional change. This includes developing better insight into the institutional preconditions for creating both legitimacy and deserved support through public debates about political institutions and the organisation of governance.
22 See, Börzel & Risse, in this Volume.