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United clubs of Europe: Informal differentiation and the social ordering of intra-EU diplomacy

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This article makes the case for integrating informal, social and minilateral dynamics in analyses of ‘differentiated integration’ in the European Union (EU) context. In EU studies, differentiated integration has mainly served as an analytical lens for studying variation in states’ degree of formalized commitment to the European integration project or in organizational decision-making procedures across policy areas. While this focus has generated important analytical and empirical insights, three dimensions tend to be lost when limiting the study of differentiated integration to negotiated outcomes manifest in legal documents and decision-making procedures. First, informal processes of integration precede and concur with formal ones. Second, European integration is an inherently social process, and member states integrate with the EU identity-building project in different ways and to different degrees. Third, member states enjoy heterogeneous social ties with one another, routinely forming informal bi- and minilateral coalitions in everyday decision-shaping processes. More knowledge about these informal and social dynamics can give us a better understanding of how differentiated integration manifests itself in practice and where the European integration process is heading. The theoretical argument is buttressed by data from the 2020 European Council of Foreign Relations’ ‘Coalition Explorer’ survey, showing how partner preferences within the EU continue to reflect stable social sub-orders.


  • Regional integration
  • Diplomacy
  • The Nordic countries
  • The EU
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