The rhetoric of inaction: failing to fail forward in the EU’s rule of law crisis

Cassandra Emmons, Tommaso Pavone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


In the EU, political crises often serve as catalysts for policymaking and ‘failing forward’. Yet as a breakdown of the rule of law has swept some member states, EU institutions have repeatedly failed to react. We argue that this outcome is partly tied to how political elites strategically mobilize rhetoric to legitimate stasis during crises. Building on theories of rhetorical action and discursive institutionalism, we rectify their bias for change and draw on Albert Hirschman’s work to theorize ‘rhetorics of inaction’: A coordinative discourse wielded by national and supranational actors to reconcile divergent preferences and justify stasis by appealing to the very policies and values threatened by crisis. We specify the conditions under which rhetorics of inaction are most likely to pervade EU policymaking and illustrate the theory’s explanatory purchase in a case study of the EU’s (non-)responses to the constitutional breakdowns of Hungary and Poland. By tracing the discursive interactions between EU and government policymakers, we demonstrate that populist and partisan affronts on the EU conceal far more sophisticated and obstructive argumentative strategies behind-the-scenes. We conclude that rhetorical politics are central to understanding the EU’s failure to respond to crises and elaborate avenues for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1611-1629
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of European Public Policy
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2021


  • European Union
  • Rule of law
  • democratic backsliding
  • discursive institutionalism
  • failing forward
  • rhetorical action

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


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